Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood


It's never happened to me.

When I've been pregnant, I've wanted to be pregnant.

But I've also held a friend's hand when she didn't want to be pregnant, stroked her hair as she tried to decide what to do, and supported her decision as best I could. We weren't teenagers at the time, but there's something about facing an unplanned pregnancy that makes a body feel simultaneously very young -- I want my mommy! -- and, weighed down by the gravity of the situation, very, very old.

The best thing the new movie Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) achieves as it traces the impact of one teenager's unplanned pregnancy is its refusal to shy away from the complexities and odd juxtapositions of life; in fact, it embraces them, insisting that we look at the messiness of relationships, the rapidly shifting peaks and valleys of emotional intelligence, so that we can begin to understand how a smart girl could have sex without birth control and how a sensitive girl could give a child up for adoption. When sixteen year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) discovers she's pregnant, she puts her head in a noose -- made out of licorice ropes (she frees herself by taking a savage bite). When she contacts a clinic to arrange an abortion, she makes the call on a hamburger-shaped telephone. Her boyfriend, the father of her child, sleeps in a racecar-shaped bed. As Juno responds when her dad asks where she's been, "Out dealing with things way beyond my maturity level."

In a movie that depicts the passage of time by the outfits the high school track team wears as they jog across the bottom of the screen, maturity is like a relay baton passed from one character to the next, no one ever holding it for long. Juno mixes moments of wisdom and wisecracking, usually in the same breath, as when she comments on her decision to give the baby up for adoption, "I mean, I'm in high school, dude, I'm ill-equipped." Paulie Bleecker, Juno's boyfriend (played by the adorable Michael Cera), loves orange Tic-Tacs, running, and eating breakfast for dinner. Arguably he should have stood up to his forceful (and unprotected) girlfriend when it really mattered, but at least, after they argue, he manages to stand up for himself: "You have no reason to be mad at me, you broke my heart!" And then there's Mark (Jason Bateman), the intended adoptive father of Juno's baby, who whiles away his working day watching slasher movies and reliving his glory days in a rock band; he's not great at reading others (he embarrassingly misunderstands Juno), but a flash of insight helps him make one mature decision.

Only two characters maintain an even keel of maturity throughout the entire film: Juno's stereotype-defying stepmother Bren (Allison Janney), and Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner), the adoptive mom whom Juno finds listed in the local PennySaver. Juno scorns Bren, with her odd choice in home furnishings, her tacky nail salon, her obsession with dogs, but at least Bren's around, unlike Juno's mother, who left the family when Juno was five and now limits her contact to an annually-mailed plant, a "cactus-gram [that] stings even worse," remarks Juno, "than [her] abandonment." Bren cautions Juno about her jaunty attitude toward adoption, "Junebug, this is a tough, tough thing to do; it's probably tougher than you can understand right now." But when Juno, sticking to her sixteen year-old (short-sighted, selfless) convictions, commits to the adoption, Bren commits to her care. She makes sure Juno eats right, gets her to the doctor, sews elastic waistbands into her jeans, and counsels her about the boundaries between a young girl and a married man. It's Bren who stands up for Juno when the ultrasound technician, relieved that the baby's being given up for adoption, comments that "it's obviously a poisonous environment to raise a child in," and Bren who calls the doctors sadists and orders them to get her daughter some pain relief when she's doubled over with her contractions. Bren manages all of this while also mothering her much younger daughter, Liberty Bell, a child who is a bit of a prop in the movie, a character designed mostly to show that Bren can mother and Juno can't. Juno forgets to give LB her asthma meds, but Bren takes her to skating lessons, makes sure she's buckled into her car seat, and feeds her a balanced dinner. With a stepdaughter by circumstance and a biological daughter by choice, Bren does what most mothers are out there doing every day, without much praise or even notice: competently, lovingly meeting the shifting needs of a variety of small (and not so small) people every day.

Like Bren, we first view Vanessa Loring, the film's other mother, through her possessions, and by how tidy she keeps them. She lives with her husband in a suburban development, and as Juno and her father drive to meet the Lorings for the first time, the camera alternates between Juno's car, passing dozens of faux-stone McMansions, and close-up shots of Vanessa's careful preparations at home: arranging flowers, artfully displaying magazines, adjusting the fold of the powder room hand towels, dusting a banister, smoothing a shirt cuff; a series of precise movements that builds an impression that Jennifer Garner's quietly emotional portrayal of Vanessa then beautifully fleshes out. Unable to get pregnant herself, having had at least one adoption fall through already, Vanessa is now keeping herself in check, controlling what little she can control. She buys armloads of baby gear at the mall and spends long moments pondering the imperceptible difference between two shades of yellow on the nursery wall. She doesn't like Juno's brash joke about drinking Makers Mark; she's offended when Juno says "You should have gone to China; I hear they give out babies like free i-pods there." But she keeps her reaction limited to a slight twitch of her lip, in case somehow this smart-mouthed child, who holds all her hopes so lightly, takes an abrupt dislike to her and calls the whole thing off.

Bren and Vanessa have one brief scene together in the film, after the baby's birth. Holding the child uncertainly, Vanessa asks Bren, "Is this… Am I… How do I look?" "Like a new mom," Bren answers, smiling; "Scared shitless." Vanessa has come a long way from the woman who sighed happily "I was born to be a mother" at the beginning of the film. Holding this weighty bundle in her arms, she shows us it doesn't matter what color your nursery is, or whether you even have one, if you can hold a child with love.

If I were sixteen, I'd want to watch this film. If I were in a cocky kind of mood, it would confirm my sense that teenagers are invincible and have all the right answers. If I were feeling more vulnerable, I'd take comfort in the supportive group of friends and family that surrounds Juno, and would feel cheered by seeing her at the end of the movie, singing a kooky duet with Paulie.

I'm not sixteen, which doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the film -- I did -- but it also means I see all the flaws and limitations in Juno's happy ending. I think about Juno at 26, at 36, and wonder if that woman might come to regret the girl's confident choices. So instead I focus on Vanessa Loring's happy ending. It's not at all the picture book ending she envisions when she's painting her baby's nursery, but it's quite a bit more real, and for me, quite a bit more satisfying.

Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.

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Your observations were spot on. I saw this movie with my husband after our 2 teenage daughters had seen it, one being 16 and the other 14 going on 16. They both were emphatic that we see the movie. They loved the music and the story. When we arrived home, they both wanted to know exactly what we thought and how we felt. I spoke of the feelings of Bren and Vanessa....they spoke of the best friend and the melding of cliques - I mean a cheerleader hanging with a free spirit, let's be real, they say with sarcasm. It was interesting how they did not mention Juno's pain but her strength and quick wit. They still quote lines. I am very much looking forward to owning the movie so I can re-watch again and again.
Wow, this sounds like a fascinating movie! I was captivated by your description, too -- well told.
You do a wonderful job of parsing out this (highly problematic) movie without jumping into the fray. Lovely.
I thought the Bren character was wonderful and really, really wondered why it never occurred to anyone that SHE could raise the baby.
Hi Caroline -- Maggie and I just saw 'Juno' last night. We both loved the movie -- I fell in love with all the quirky characters and came out of the theater with a spring to my step. I thought the writing was witty and poignant, moving me to laugh hysterically, and to spill some tears. I did like they way they portrayed Juno's stepmom. It was a refreshing to see.
I am fascinated how this has become such a litmus test for people - for their stances on motherhood, and pregnancy, and fertility and even how much quirky fits in a screenplay (and how this is or isn't a commercial film cloaked as an indie). What I enjoyed most about "Juno" were the secondary characters. I believed utterly Bren, and Juno's dad - and especially Jason Bateman's character (while some found him terrifically icky, I thought he was nuanced and a sad mess and I knew more than one man like him when *I* was 16).
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