Something of a latecomer, I watched the movie Juno three nights ago. I wasn't so much surprised by, as satisfied by its perfection - no, not perfection in any profound, full-orbed-worldview sort of way (the film is by no means perfect) - but the inherent perfection in the quiet nobility of its story, and characters.
The movie's quality is in the lightness, as it (a comedy) discloses its heart: the way the film takes its own hip, irreverent pop-cult milieu of mildly sardonic witticisms, then suddenly undermines it, and stealthily affirms…the birth of a child by a sixteen year old and the giving of that child for adoption.
In a culture that goes about seeking authenticity in all the wrong ways (hence one of the reasons why irony is so prevalent in our culture), here is a film that asks in a subtle manner: what is it that really matters to you, to "who you are", to what makes you, you?
And then the movie provides an answer without in the least being moralistic. The answer is of course to be found, not in Juno's guileless and frank and pop-conscious personality (genuine though it may be, it still proves fallible later on), but in Juno's actions and decisions underlying those things: to be able to give. You can be faulty as anything, a living wretch, but if you retain the capacity to give at the cost of pain and sacrifice (and yes, mockery), then you retain and find your true character: you become ennobled. For in that lies our true authenticity.
Alternatively, you can be affluent in virtue and manner, guiltless of any great corruption (which frankly, in this day of mass abortion, is impossible, since everyone is culpable), a winning personality, unique and "original" in every way, but if you do not have the retained capacity to give at the cost of pain and sacrifice, then you are void. Or to put it another way, you can be an extremely "giving" person, giving in every way, except in the way that gives in the direction that doesn't hold interest for you, or in ways that cause you pain and mockery, and you will still be a selfish void.
Now, the way in which this movie unveils this giving as authenticity in Juno's character is in a perfect balance of Ellen Page's acting with the equally genuine direction of Jason Reitman, from Diablo Cody's remarkably simple screenplay. What sort of subtleties are here that distinguish the story from some after-school teen-drama?
It is, basically, Ellen Page's character, Juno.
The good characters are good without being sugar-coated, and flawed without being psychologically stamped with teenage "traits" - or adult "traits" for that matter: that's one feat. But to be able to bring out their personal nobilities in a way that goes well beyond charming us, while yet resisting the idolatry of positivism? That is a kind of miracle. That is art.
This development of the character Juno coincides with a key revelation concerning the adoptive parents, which comes about by way of having to face her own behaviours and ways. Without getting into much detail, the revelation is sort of like the progression of a Flannery O' Connor story, in which we are brought to an often disturbing disclosure of a character we took to be normal, and are faced with our own subjective normalizing of our own behaviour, and what it hides.
Thomas Merton described this aspect of Flannery O' Connor in an essay, in which he talks about a certain character named Rayber, in The Violent Bear it Away:
"A teacher, a man with forward-looking and optimistic perspectives, illuminated and blessed with a scientific world view, he is acquainted with all the best methods for helping people to become happy and well adjusted in the best of all possible societies. It is he who sees through nonsense, prejudice, and myth…It is he who suffers permanent damage (deafness) trying to liberate the boy from the awful trammels of obscurantism and superstition…Yet as we read Flannery O' Connor we find an uncomfortable feeling creeping over us: we are on the side of the fanatic and the mad boy, and we are against this reasonable zombie. We are against everything he stands for. We find ourselves nauseated by the reasonable, objective, "scientific" answers he has for everything. In him, science is so right that it is a disaster."
For the sake of analogy, while the film's scenario is not the same down to the details, it is enough that in Juno there are two characters, one of whom we get comfortable with and start to like, and the other whom we find stiff, mildly paranoid and unconsciously snobby, who both, with the same uneasiness described by Merton, are switched in our perceptions, so that the cool, relaxed, pop-indy-cult-conscious, amiable husband becomes frankly repulsive, and the fretting, stiff wife becomes one of true motherly character.
Every once in a while you will hear someone talk about how if you want to know the state of a culture, look to the stories that it tells. I often forget this, and when I hear it again, or suddenly remember it, I get a certain haunted feeling.
A story in which a pregnant sixteen year old decides to go through with carrying her unborn child and all that it entails, all done for the sake of an adoptive mother who at least superficially represents the entire antithesis of that girl's cultural milieu - that is a story worth watching.
For it is a story worth enacting in real life.