Flanagan’s Infuriating Mis-Read of “Juno”

Posted on January 14, 2008 at 7:54 am

Caitlan Flanagan’s elegant prose and exceptional grasp of vital detail make it easy to miss the single most important fact about what she writes — her absence of any insight about anything outside her own experience and her own head. In the New York Times, she wrote an op-ed about the movie Juno that has a mind-boggling misread of the movie’s conclusion.

The final scene of the movie shows Juno and her boyfriend returned to their carefree adolescence, the baby — safely in the hands of his rapturous and responsible new mother — all but forgotten.

On the contrary. The final scene is bittersweet. The screenplay notes their “ambiguous smiles” at each other. Everyone in the film is changed in unexpected ways as a result of the sexual encounter that begins the film, one which, as Paulie reminds her, was not the impulsive act of a bored teenager but a deliberate choice. And that conversation in particular and the film as a whole make clear that Juno fully recognizes the consequences of her choice for herself and for her child.
Flanagan’s review of a new book about Katie Couric appears in the current issue of “The Atlantic.” As usual, the first third of the piece is not about the book or about Katie Couric but about Flanagan herself and how she used to feel watching the pre-Couric “Today Show” when she was in college. As usual, when she does get to the topic she is supposed to be discussing whatever she has to say about Couric is more about her than it is about her subject. It would be one thing if she decided to be this generation’s Joyce Maynard, obsessive self-awareness redeemed by felicitious writing, provocative opinions, and entertaining candor. But her self-awareness does not extend to awareness of how limited her vision is. She cannot keep from extrapolating every thought and feeling to her entire generation or to women everywhere.
I was sorry to see, at the end of the op-ed, a note that Flanagan is working on a book about “the emotional lives of pubescent girls.” I hope she lets them speak for themselves instead of making her own emotional life the template for everyone else.

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9 Replies to “Flanagan’s Infuriating Mis-Read of “Juno””

  1. I dunno. Seems like Ms. Flanagan is reasonable on Juno. In fact, I recently read another opinion piece posted by a syndicated columnist that berated movies like Juno, Waitress and Knocked Up for happier-than-life endings that could have been scribed by a pro-life version of the Brothers Grimm. There should be more serious consequences of an unplanned teenage pregnancy than what could be evidenced by “ambiguous smiles” afterwards by the parties involved.
    And I’m a bit surprised that the Movie Mom there doesn’t feel similarly.
    That’s just my two cents.

  2. Thanks for the two cents, Big Dave. I think the movie makes it clear that despite all of Juno’s attempts to be cool, she is deeply upset and deeply changed by the experience of having a child. For me, the most powerful scenes in the movie are when her stepmother rises to her defense during the sonogram and when Juno sobs in her car after Mark leaves Vanessa. The impact of that pregancy is seismic, affecting Juno and everyone around her. The experience causes her to reconsider some of her notions about the way she herself had been mothered and what kind of mothering she wanted for her child. It made her ready for a relationship of her own in a way she was not before. I do not in any way think that the film-makers intended it to appear that the consequences were anything other than serious and I do not think that is what the movie conveyed.
    I was not a huge fan of “Knocked Up,” in part because I was never rooting for the two of them to get together. “Waitress” was not exactly a happily-ever-after ending. Like “Juno” — the pregnant character had to make some serious and life-transforming decisions because for the first time she had to think about what was best for someone else. To me, those are serious — and realistic — consequences.
    Just my 2 cents back!

  3. I’m the father of a 13-year-old girl. I took my daughter to see “Juno,” and I thought it was a great antidote to most Hollywood fare. I expect that we’ll get it on DVD as soon as it comes out, and then sit down to watch it as a family. (My wife doesn’t much like going to the movies.)
    Flanagan lost me when she declared, “Female viewers flinch” when Juno’s father says a certain line. How did an editor let that one pass? “I flinched” would have been fine. “Several women around me flinched,” would have been suspect, but at least it’s in the realm of possibility. But all female viewers? Perhaps Flanagan has superpowers. Or maybe, as you explained in your review of her column, Flanagan assumes that everyone thinks like she does.
    I was quite pleased to see “Juno” portray a decent father-daughter relationship. There are too few of these on film, particularly with teen daughters. I think back to the opening lines of “My So Called Life,” in which the teenaged protagonist says something like, I used to be close to my father, but then my breasts got between us.
    My sense is that Flanagan wants to see Juno bear more stigma. Boo hiss. She’s clearly dealing with a lot of it anyway. Why begrudge her a slice of happy at the end of the movie? In the real world, going through a trauma doesn’t mean we never get to sing again.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful and compassionate comments, Pete. Well said. I agree entirely about the father-daughter relationship, which is beautifully portrayed, very rare these days when the media seems to think all parents of teens are dictators or idiots. I also loved the tenderness of the scene where the step-mother defends Juno to the sonographer. There’s a lot about parenting in many different ways in the film, from the birth mother who sends a cactus every year to the very moving scene in the mall where Juno sees Vanessa’s sweetness as she plays with a child. I agree that it is a great place to begin a discussion with a young teenager. Thanks again.

  5. Good, modulated smackdown on Ms. Flanagan. It’s funny how any film in which a character decides to keep a baby, not abort it, yields nasty reviews in some quarters.
    Critics should do their darndest to keep their personal feelings out of their reviews. Easier said than done, and I’m surely guilty of injecting my beliefs into my work from time to time. Some critics don’t even pretend to try.
    The consequences of the baby’s birth on Juno in “Juno” is huge. To miss it is like missing a basketball bouncing lazily across the movie screen.

  6. So let’s see then. What are the consequences of Juno’s unwanted teenage pregnancy? Her relationship with her out-of-the-loop dad becomes closer and more personal, she also overcomes a strained relationship with her stepmom, she gives the gift of a child to a desperate would-be mother while Juno herself finds true love with her baby’s father and they end up singing a happy tune at the end.
    Is this the moral of the story you would want your 13-year-old daughter to be carrying out of the theater after seeing this film? Never mind that the newborn, a boy, may not know a father let along his real father. Never mind that the parties involved will likely suffer psycho-social aftereffects perhaps lasting a lifetime. Never mind that teenage pregnancies often involve complications that go beyond the made-for-movie drama of an ultrasound.
    I believe, as Ms. Flanagan indicated, that Juno was intended to be a fairy tale. The lyrical animated intoduction with the opening credits provides a clue. By the way, here is a link to Ellen Goodman, the columnist I alluded to in my earlier comment here–
    Hope it’s okay to post that. I think both Ms. Flanagan and Ms. Goodman delve reasonably into consequences the average viewer may have missed.

  7. I think our only disagreement, Big Dave, is with your last line. I believe that the things you describe are all very present in the movie and unmissable by anyone, teenager or adult, who is paying attention. Yes, she grows up and improves some of her relationships. But Juno sobs heartbreakingly when she realizes that she will not be able to provide the fantasy home for the baby. And she grows up a lot when she realizes that no one can guarantee perfection for anyone, even a baby. Even Vanessa realizes that messiness and pain are a part of life. She gets what she dreamed of, but she has to give up a lot to get there.
    You got the point. I got the point. Other posters got the point. I think that was what Cody and Reitman intended. I think that is what the “average viewer” will see in the film, too.

  8. I have two daughters who have had children out of wedlock, much to my grief. My oldest, as the result of a godless life in the drug culture. Her first babe was adopted by a wonderful couple, her second whom she tried to keep is now in foster care.
    My second daughter’s reaction to our family’s stress with her older sister was to seek solice with her boyfriend. She kept her baby, she and the father sought counseling, and they married when the baby was 4 months old. They’re young, and their life is hard, but they are seeking all avenues of support they find (and others offer) to be successful. I’m delighted with their growth and spiritual lessons they’ve learned.
    My youngest, a son still in high school, has experienced a range of emotions watching his sisters and these babies come (and go) from his life. He has seen the tears, anger, steps to forgiveness, the ostricizing that we’ve all experienced to some degree in these situations. He has seen our second daughter’s friends react awfully to her, especially her Christian friends. He saw her agonize about life choices. His response to _Juno_ was one of anger, a response that I completely understand: he believes that young women will see this and think that having a baby isn’t nearly the big deal it truly is.
    Having watched the movie myself, I think the director did what he could, yet I think my son might be right: the messages may be too subtle to counter all the other messages they receive regarding consequences of their sexual choices.

  9. Thank you so much, Deb, for the gift of your story. I agree with you that there are a lot of dangerous messages out there, ones that even the best efforts from parents cannot counteract when the choices are being made by adolescents without the judgment and experience to understand the risks.

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