In the first scene of Juno, a girl drinks Tang, walks through a hand-drawn cartoon credit sequence, and has a high-speed and ironic conversation with a convenience store clerk. Immediately, I’m thinking this movie is in trouble. Like a lot of people, I’ve grown tired of the ironic cynicism displayed in many of the most recent films and television shows. While I enjoy many of the more balanced films that started the fad, the onslaught of one-dimensional copycats has been unfortunate.
Fortunately for all of us, the number two movie in the U.S. right now is not that kind of movie.
Don’t get me wrong. Juno is a movie geared toward hipsters and younger kids who “get” that sort of humor. The irony and cynicism is there, primarily espoused by the lead character, Juno. However, as the film proceeds, it treats each character with respect, letting them defend or condemn themselves.
In a culture that generally operates on the sophomoric, one-note joke, “Haha, aren’t authority figures lame?”, the film rebelliously portrays Juno’s parents as real people who deeply care for their daughter. In a culture that has abandoned sincerity and made the sacred absurd, Juno does not shrink back from truly heartfelt, meaningful moments. It has succeeded in making the honorable (parenthood, adoption, responsibility) seem honorable and the absurd (abortion, teenage pregnancy, divorce, the refusal to grow up) seem absurd. For instance, when Juno gets pregnant, even she acknowledges that it was a result of an utter lack of judgment. However, the result of that pregnancy is ultimately seen as sacred by all involved.
The most impressive aspect of this film is that is does all of this without being preachy. It simply tells the story and leaves the viewers to make their own judgments. As the film progresses, these judgments begin to change. We begin to realize that while Juno is often funny, her constant attempts at ironic or cynical humor are often an attempt to avoid any real emotion. We begin to see that responsibility is not always the enemy of identity. We begin to see just how easy it is to be wrong.
The best films don’t just entertain us. They surprise us. They haunt us. They make us reconsider ourselves. These are not the types of experiences that a sinful humanity yearns for. We want to be reassured by Napoleon Dynamite that yes, that dork in school really was that weird and deserves to be laughed at. We want to be led by Transformers to the foregone conclusion that the bad guys will never get “the cube”. We want Quentin Tarantino to reassure us that our desire for revenge and bloodletting is really just a desire for “justice”.
The last thing we want is that nagging, haunting voice telling us that our sarcastic jokes really aren’t that funny.