Abortion debates, Oscar buzz and fierce backlash: 10 years of Juno

In 2007, Juno divided fans and critics.

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Every so often, a film comes along that dominates the cultural conversation. In 2007, that film was Juno. It premiered on 8 September at the Toronto Film Festival. Before that, there was little hype: Juno was just considered a small indie comedy featuring some familiar faces. But it was the surprise favourite of the whole festival, receiving the biggest, longest, and loudest standing ovation in TIFF history (famed Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert began his write up of the screening with the words, “I don’t know when I’ve heard a standing ovation so long, loud and warm”).

Reviews from the festival were breathless. Hollywood Reporter summed up the response: “Juno defies expectations at every turn, giving the slip to anything saccharine or trite or didactic, looking to its characters for insight and complexity […] and, most crucially, taking a presumably stale storyline and making it into a buoyant comedy.”

As more critics saw the film in the ensuing weeks, more positive reviews rolled in. Ebert called it “just about the best movie of the year”, while the San Francisco Chronicle described it as “a confluence of perfection in every aspect”. The New Yorker could find “not a single false note”. Oscar buzz grew: it became known as “this year’s Little Miss Sunshine”, the tonally-similar Sundance hit from the year before that won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 2007.

But it is a truth universally acknowledged that a film in possession of buzz must be in want of a backlash, and the backlash came. Particular issue was taken with the script and the deliberately quirky, wise-cracking Juno herself. New York Magazine wrote: “The relentlessly jokey banter of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is taken to a screechy new level.” Entertainment Weekly said that “Juno begins at such a pitch of hyperverbal smart-mouthing, not only by the title character but also by everyone around her, that it takes about a half hour for the movie’s long-term plans to make tolerable sense.” Even AO Scott, in his mostly positive review for the New York Times, acknowledged: “The passive-aggressive pseudo-folk songs, the self-consciously clever dialogue, the generic, instantly mockable suburban setting — if you can find Sundance on a map, you’ll swear you’ve been here before.”

Juno was nominated at the Oscars – for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress – which fuelled the divide between fans and critics even further. Vanity Fair, in a piece titled “Deconstructing the Little Miss Juno Phenomenon,” argued that post-nomination, “Juno is no longer the quirky, low-budget sensation teeming with hamburger phones and the mile-a-minute bons mots of stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo ‘Not Her Real Name’ Cody”, but rather an enjoyable film that paled in comparison with other contenders. “I don't want to see Juno within a thousand feet of the Kodak Theater,” the writer, ST VanAirsdale, declared. “I want her and her twee champions stopped at the metal detector.” Sadly for VanAirsdale, it won Best Original Screenplay.

By December, the narrative surrounding of Juno had shifted from descriptions of a surprising low-budget comedy written with warmth and wit by a former stripper, to those of a mid-budget studio film giving an insufferable impression of an “indie” film via a twee soundtrack and obnoxious, contrived dialogue. (And yes, if the trajectory from standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival in September to fierce backlash by December sounds familiar, it could be mapped almost exactly onto La La Land in 2016.)

As Juno’s release rolled on, there were other criticisms, too: the film’s depiction of Juno fleeing a family planning clinic at speed, after realising her foetus has fingernails, was interpreted as some to be anti-abortion. “As an unapologetically old-school feminist, the father of a soon-to-be-teenage daughter, a reporter who regularly talks to actual teens as part of his beat and a plain old moviegoer, I hated, hated, hated this movie,” said Jim DeRogatis, of the Chicago Sun-Times, in a notably enraged piece (music critic DeRogatis takes particular issue with the film’s portrayal of rock fan Mark as a pathetic loser). In it, he debates whether “the message of Juno is anti-abortion and therefore anti-woman, despite its arch post-feminist veneer.”

The New York Post ran a piece asking: “Juno: Pro-Life or Pro-Choice?”, while Rewire wrote the film “misrepresents the reality of abortion in America”, pleading with audiences to “get angry at irresponsible mass media types that with this film have set back the cause of abortion on request.” Both Diablo Cody and Ellen Page defended the film as pro-choice in the press cycle. In Page’s words, “She goes to an abortion clinic and she completely examines all the opportunities and all the choices allowed her and that's obviously the most crucial thing.”

I first saw Juno in a British cinema in 2008, with my best friend and her entire family. I was 15, and I remember leaving the theatre in a giddy daze, thinking I had rarely seen a film so good. It’s become a comfort film that I reliably re-watch for its ability to make me cry. I watched it again, in writing this piece, and tried to cast a more critical eye over it – but found myself only discovering more things to love about it.

Yes, in the opening scenes, we are greeted by a flurry of lines that no human being would say: “Silencio, Old Man!”, “Phuket, Thailand” (as a gloss on “Fuck it!”) or “Honest to blog?” But this a film so emotionally sincere that even artificial dialogue feels humanising, introducing us, as it does, to a group of only performatively adult teenagers. (And who said vernacular realism was the ultimate goal of cinema, anyway?)

The scene in which Juno tells her father and stepmother of her pregnancy is a perfect example of the film’s earnest approach to comedy. The jokes come at intense speed, ricocheting around the room – but they’re all gentle and character-based, rooted in a familiarity with characters we’ve come to love over a very short time. Mac and Bren jump to wild conclusions about Juno (“I was hoping she was expelled or into hard drugs”). Juno shoots back dry quips (“The school would probably contact you in the event of my expulsion”) and offers self-deprecating, funny takedowns of her condition (“I have heartburn that’s like, radiating down to my kneecaps”). Family childcare anecdotes emerge (“You don’t even remember to give Liberty Bell her breathing meds–”  “Once! And she didn’t die, if you recall!”).

Nail technician Bren jumps at the news Juno’s foetus has fingernails (“Nails? Really?”) and gets straight to prescribing Juno with vitamins (“Incidentally, they’ll do incredible things for your nails”). Even Juno’s friend Leah and her dad Mac bond for a second over the news that Paulie Bleeker is the father (“I didn’t know he had it in him!”). It’s inclusive, tender comedy that makes you feel part of this dysfunctional family – and somehow, everyone comes off well, mainly thanks to wonderfully grounded performances from Page, Allison Janney and JK Simmons.

Juno has its missteps when it comes to abortion – from the unappealing clinic to the repeated lines about foetal fingernails to the praise Juno receives for deciding not to have an abortion (“You’re a little Viking!”). For me, Juno is a film about choices. Juno has the choice to give birth, or not. Mark has choice to run from the family he will soon be thrust into, or stay and become a father. Vanessa has the choice to back out of the adoption once her husband leaves her, or forge on as a single parent. Juno’s choice is painted as courageous, but not necessarily right – Bren warns that it’s “a tough, tough thing to do. Probably tougher than you can understand right now”, insists to the ultrasound technician that the adoptive parents “could be utterly negligent”. It forces her to understand things about people she wasn’t prepared to learn – or in her words, to deal “with stuff way beyond my maturity level”.

That “stuff” is the relationship between Juno’s more surprising characters, Mark and Vanessa Lorrings, too. At first, Vanessa is a cartoonish, po-faced yuppie too uptight to empathise with until the film’s final twist; Mark a warm, approachable presence that only lets us down at the last – when he decides he’s not ready for kids and leaves his expectant wife in the lurch. But on repeated viewings (or, perhaps, as I’ve aged) the film flags this plot development early – while Mark is a little pathetic and creepy, Vanessa is defined by her fierce knowledge of what she wants, and her determination to get it. For me, this is where Juno really excels – in its portrait of two women forging an unlikely bond over their ability to go on without a disappointing man.

Vanessa knows she wants to be a mother – she sees it as an individual calling she is defined by: “I was born to be a mother. Some of us are.” Mark, on the other hand, defines himself by two, overlapping things: his masculinity and his alternative “cool” taste (something Juno is initially enamoured with). As a result, he can only fit fatherhood into a vague notion of maleness. When Juno asks him if he wants to be a dad, he responds in a way that feels picture-perfect on the first watch, and hollow and reluctant on the second: “Mmm... Betcha... Yeah. Every guy wants to be a father, wants to coach the soccer team, and help out with the science fair uh, and the volcano goes off, yeah. All that.”

This dynamic plays out again in the scene where Vanessa paints their nursery – she is, in her words, nesting. Mark refuses to give an opinion on the colour, and can only say “it’s too early to paint”. Vanessa implores him to look at What To Expect When You’re Expecting, reminding him that she’s flagged the relevant chapters. Mark earlier explains to Juno that Vanessa often chides him for not “contributing” – and from this scene, we get the sense that it’s true in an emotional sense, in his lack of imaginative contribution to their future family, as well as a practical one. He refuses to leave the role of the cool guy (watching movies, listening to mix tapes, flirting with a 16-year-old, and definitely not painting nurseries or thinking about babies).

When Mark tells Juno he’s leaving Vanessa, she’s distraught. “I thought you’d be cool with this,” he falters. “Cool!” she scoffs. “I...How do you think of me, Juno?” he splutters. Vanessa insists Mark is “just being a guy”. When it becomes clear that Mark really is leaving for good, and has rented himself a loft, Vanessa sighs, and says (without malice), “Well, aren’t you the cool guy.” Mark exits the film as he enters it – as the cool guy. It’s our understanding of what that means that’s changed. Juno, too, revises her conception of both masculinity and coolness, leading her back to sweet, geeky Bleeker: “I think you are the coolest person I’ve ever met,” she says to him. “And you don’t even have to try.”

In the 10 years since Juno’s release, the cinematic landscape has shifted. Countless films have emerged in a similar tradition: Youth in Revolt, Adventureland, 500 Days of Summer, Short Term 12, Obvious Child, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Edge of Seventeen, even film of the moment Lady Bird. And Juno itself remains divisive. But, for me, it also remains striking as a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, laughs with its characters, and can be watched again and again.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.