Get Real, 'Juno': You're a phony

January 13, 2008


In the liner notes to "Juno: Music from the Motion Picture," the soundtrack album released on Tuesday, director Jason Reitman writes about how the movie's star helped choose its music, which was key in setting the pervasive sarcastic-hipster tone.

"Two months before we started shooting 'Juno,' Ellen Page was hanging out at my office when I asked her 'What kind of music do you think Juno listens to?' " Reitman recalls. "Without pause, she blurted out 'the Moldy Peaches.' " Within seconds, the actress was downloading songs by Brooklyn's lo-fi "anti-folk" duo, including "Anyone Else But You," the duet Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, the former Chicagoan Brook Busey, chose to provide the closing scene between 16-year-old parents Juno and Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera).

"This song, more than any other, defined the sound of the film: a patchwork of homemade sounds made by teenagers whose sense of humor and honesty rang through the crappy tape recorder they were using to capture their chicken-scratch lyrics," Reitman notes.

And this points to the heart of the problem with "Juno."

Here is a 29-year-old screenwriter (Cody) and a 30-year-old director (Reitman) brainstorming with a nearly 21-year-old actress (Page) and deciding that the intentionally primitive and infantile sounds recorded by a 35-year-old musician (Kimya Dawson) epitomize "the music that the kids today really listen to." This sort of contrivance hardly smacks of the honesty and humor the filmmakers brag about, and which many critics have hailed.

"A confluence of perfection in every aspect of the film," David Weigand wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Not a single false note," David Denby crowed in The New Yorker. "Just about the best movie of the year," said my esteemed colleague Roger Ebert. And Michael Phillips added in the Tribune: "For a while you wonder if this story of a pregnant teenager's coming of age will exhaust you with cleverness. Then, stealthily, everything about the movie starts working together more purposefully. And by the end you've fallen in love with the thing."

Well, no: 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. A few of my many problems:

*The notion that kids -- even smart and sarcastic ones -- talk like Juno is a lie only thirtysomething filmmakers and fiftysomething movie critics could buy. You want accurate wisecracking high-school dialog? Go back to MTV's animated "Daria" or Sara Gilbert's Darlene on "Roseanne." Or, as Juno says, "Honest to blog!"

*Are we really supposed to believe that a girl as intelligent and self-empowered as Juno, when determining the time to lose her virginity via a planned encounter with her best friend, neglects to bring birth control? Or that her endearingly human parents, no matter how non-judgmental, accept the news of her pregnancy so nonchalantly? And why doesn't anybody, including the father, respectfully ask the ever-sneering Juno her reasoning for having the baby and giving it up for adoption?

*I lived in Minneapolis, where the film is set, in the early '90s, and every day on my way to work, I passed a women's clinic besieged by angry protesters determined to deny its patients access. It was no laughing matter, and regardless of your personal politics at a time when the future of Roe v. Wade is very much in doubt, the clinicians, the patients and even the protesters all deserve more complex, nuanced and thoughtful portraits than the simplistic and insulting caricatures drawn by Cody.

Lip service

We can debate whether the message of "Juno" is anti-abortion and therefore anti-woman, despite its arch post-feminist veneer. But there's no arguing that the movie is anti-rock, at least if we still define rock as an honest expression of youthful rebellion.

Sure, Juno gives lip service to Iggy and the Stooges and Patti Smith. But there isn't a hint of the anger and lust for life of those pioneering punks in the sort of twee indie-rock that Juno loves. The soundtrack is dominated by the sickeningly saccharine Belle & Sebastian, Cat Power, Antsy Pants and most of all Kimya Dawson, who claims seven of the 19 tracks.

Dawson first made her name beside Adam Green as half of the Moldy Peaches, but that band went on hiatus in 2003. Since then, she's been a prolific solo artist, pausing only to give birth to a daughter named Panda Delilah in 2006. Dawson attempts to channel her own inner infant with deliberately sing-song vocals, beyond-amateurish musicianship and faux-juvenile lyrics. A sample from "Loose Lips," which powers a key scene in the movie:

So if you wanna burn yourself remember that I love you

And if you wanna cut yourself remember that I love you

And if you wanna kill yourself remember that I love you

Call me up before you're dead, we can make some plans instead

Send me an IM, I'll be your friend.

Those lines treat the very real problem of teen suicide with the same glib insincerity that "Juno" adopts while addressing teen pregnancy. Reitman may be right when he says the movie found its ideal soundtrack.

'Just a lot of noise'

Yes, Sonic Youth also appears on the album. But the underground icons are represented by their ironic, smarmy cover of the Carpenters' "Superstar." And in the film, Juno actually mocks the would-be adoptive father, Mark Loring (Jason Bateman), for championing the Melvins and Sonic Youth, whom she dismisses as "just a lot of noise."

We're encouraged to see Bateman/Loring as hopelessly immature -- unlike paradigms of virtue such as Seth Rogen in "Knocked Up" and Nathan Fillion in "Waitress," those other recent tributes to unplanned pregnancies -- because he bails on his obviously troubled marriage when he decides he isn't ready for fatherhood. His stunted growth is illustrated by the fact that he's nostalgic for that passe and played-out alternative rock, and he regrets quitting his touring underground band to write commercial jingles. Silly old Gen X'er -- doesn't he know Generation Y has rejected the very notion of "selling out" in the mad rush to buy iPhones, Uggs and Wii consoles?

In the end, in a topsy-turvy movie universe where the teen heroine struts like John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever," clearing a path in her high school hallway with a pregnant belly she treats as the ultimate outsider status symbol, Bateman's Loring actually can be seen as a more honest and genuinely rebellious character than Juno. At the very least, you know he has a much better record collection.