By Stuart Nachbar
Juno, USA, 2007
Directed by Jason Reitman
Since I wrote a novel based around sex education, I’ve tried to pay attention to other books and movies that do the same. I reviewed Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This time, I’m reviewing Juno, a movie I enjoyed so much I saw it twice, the first time with my wife, the second time alone, so I could take a more insightful look at the story.
Juno is the story of a pregnant teenager who is trying to make sense of her difficult circumstances. Ellen Page, who plays Juno, makes the movie. She’s not only funny, but she appears wise without taking things too seriously. Juno is the geeky guy’s best friend, someone you can talk to, jam with, but you’d forget she was a girl unless she reminded you – and that’s how she gets pregnant. She reminded the cheese on her macaroni, before he ever knew he was.
I enjoyed Juno because it was different; it was not a formulaic high school drama of fill-in-the-blank (studs, geeks, misfits, beauty queens, etc) against the cliques or the teachers. Nor was the movie a preachy lecture where everyone in one person’s life imposes values and passes sentence. Juno was not held up as a poster child for teen sex gone wrong. That would have lost the teen/college audience for sure.
Instead, Juno is a movie that a father and teenage daughter can watch together, and share laughs at each other’s expense after it ends. Election (1999), which starred Matthew Broderick, and was based on another Perrotta best-seller, is the only other high school-based movie that comes close to the same achievement. No surprise; I saw both movies in person and they played well to all ages.
I could open my old high school yearbook, or anyone else’s for that matter, and probably find one girl like Juno, maybe two, but certainly no more. She’s noted as an oddball, but doesn’t stand out in any special way, except for her wit and her untimely pregnancy. During a rare scene in school, pregnant Juno attracts silence and stares as the crowds allow her to pass undisturbed, although it is clear that she has been branded a marked woman.
But Juno is remarkably poised for her age; she’s thought through what she wants to do – put the baby up for adoption – and she’s handling the pain with surprising humor. Juno is the bravest girl in school, and she’s considered the freak. It’s unclear why that happens; Juno’s boyfriend/best friend’s mother was the only person who had given Juno a reputation. Maybe Juno’s classmates are afraid, not for her, but themselves. Maybe the movie’s writers have left that for us to figure out. It’s good meat for a father-daughter talk after the movie’s over.
After seeing Juno for the second time, I picked up a book, Restless Virgins, a non-fiction story about teenage hook-ups at a nationally respected New England prep school. This was a rare opportunity to take a back-to-back look at a movie and book along similar themes.
The authors of Restless Virgins, Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley, both graduates of the school, told a true story that appeared to be more like the formulaic high school movies: take the social cliques of the school, peer pressures, and mix them in with a scandal reminiscent of the Duke Lacrosse case. Only this time, the boys are expelled while the girl’s reputation is embarrassingly showcased in court. The school is spared no embarrassment as well; a headmaster is forced to concede that hooking up has been par for the course for some time.
I understand why a publisher took on Restless Virgins; the school is one of the nation’s elite and its students considered among the best of the best at gaining admission to the most selective colleges. We expect to be surprised when they behave just like “public school kids” who lack the same advantages. We expect them to abide by a code of conduct, inside and outside school, for the good of the institution, and for the sake of tradition.
But Restless Virgins showed me that the elite are just like anyone else, except that they can afford better lawyers. All high schools, public or private have their cliques and they change, while the traditions that should probably die take a long time to go away. This came out quite strongly in Virgins. The students were ready to ignore, or let go of the school’s past, while the administrators were asleep at the switch, incapable of cleaning up the mess.
Unlike Juno, there were no pregnant young women in Restless Virgins. But Juno MacGuff didn’t see sex as a game, or something she had to do, but something she wanted to do, with a guy she really cared about. The fictional Juno was far more mature, and also far more interesting, than the real-life cast in Restless Virgins.
Stuart Nachbar has been involved with education politics, policy and technology as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as author of The Sex Ed Chronicles. Visit his blog, Educated Quest.
Contact the Author: Contributor@MoviesIDidntGet.com