I was hoping she was expelled from school or into hard drugs¯Nothing, it seems, could be worse in parents eyes than having a teenage daughter get pregnant. Especially when its going to last for nine months. But as a New York Times headline announced last month, after falling steadily for fifteen years, the teen birthrate is starting to creep back up¯with a notable 3 percent increase in 2006.
The movie Juno , released in theaters across the United States last month, is willing to confront the hard facts of teen pregnancy. And although the producers arent trying to don the armor of culture warriors, they dont flinch about showing the reality of abortion, adoption, and broken families either. The result is moving but hardly sentimental¯its a rough-and-tumble film, with plenty of high school awkwardness, candid humor, adolescent pain, and adult strength.
According to a report released this fall by the Guttmacher Institute , 13 percent of teens have engaged in sexual intercourse by age fifteen, and 70 percent by nineteen. Of the eighteen million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases reported each year, young people account for nearly half, and one of every thirteen teenage girls becomes pregnant.
It should not come as a great surprise that about one-third of these pregnancies end in abortion, but Juno reminds us that the problem is about much more than the numbers.
In the film, Juno McGuff, played by Ellen Page, is a sixteen-year-old with a mind of her own, always ready with a wry remark and defiant nod. Yet shes not just another rebellious teen girl in another rebellious teen comedy. Shes still very much a kid¯drinking huge blue Slurpies and gabbing away on her hamburger phone¯but she finds herself in a situation that is, as she says, way beyond my maturity level. It only took once, and Juno is pregnant.
Have you considered, you know, the alternative? asks her step-mom, when Juno painfully announces the news and tells how shes been looking for adoptive parents in the local PennySaver.
Her answer is definite¯104 percent NO. The audience has already witnessed what brought her to this resolve. Junos initial reaction to her pregnancy was to call up the local womens clinic and get this thing nipped in the bud. So, all alone, she goes to an abortion clinic. Your baby wants to be borned, the sole pro-life protester, a fellow high-schooler, chants in an unconvincing sing-song, and Juno feels more pity for the little picketer than for the thing inside her. But he feels pain, his heart is beating, he has fingernails , the girl calls after her, and Juno just glances back in supercilious amusement.
Once inside, however, Juno confronts a squalid receptionist and squeamish dentist-office smell. More pointedly, she cant stop looking at the hands of the other women: painting their nails, scratching an itch, drumming nervously. As her heart throbs louder and louder¯or is it the babys heart?¯all she can see is fingernails. And each set belongs to a person. Without any didactic voice-over and without a second thought, Juno jumps up and tears out the door.
Juno may not say exactly why, but nobody asks on a whim for nine months of wearing, in her words, a fat suit I cant take off or for morning sickness and labor pains. Juno eventually finds a yuppie woman named Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner) to be the adoptive mom. Vanessa gushes almost nauseatingly about Junos generous sacrifice in helping her fulfill her dearest wish of being a mommy, but Juno just rolls her eyes. She invariably calls the unborn child the Thing, and she admits that shed hand it over in a minute, except that it would look like a sea monkey and a little cooking would make it cuter. Slate.coms critic Ann Hulbert attributes Junos decision to her independent, unconventional personality. But as the Atlantic s Ross Douthat points out , this isnt nonconformity for nonconformitys sake; its cast as a case where being a nonconformist happens to be the right thing to be.
Junos convictions barely show beneath her see-if-I-care attitude and her hip high school lingo, but those convictions nonetheless have deep roots. Vanessa asks if she wants to be paid for the adoption, and Juno shoots back, Im not selling the Thing. Possessions can be sold. People cant.
And so, as her slight teenage figure starts to bulge, she sews elastic bands in her jeans while her T-shirts stretch out, classmates stare and tease, and adults point to her as the cautionary whale. To make matters worse, the adoption plans almost fall apart and are mended only with considerable complication, while throughout the film Juno fires off her quick quips and witty high-school-isms. The life that she carries in her teenage body may be beautiful, but that isnt the films overt message. Unsentimental in the extreme, Juno does not focus on the sweetness of morality but the stickiness of reality.
Maybe thats why a scene near the end stands out so poignantly. Juno and a friend are walking through the mall when they see Vanessa, the future adoptive mom, cuddling and romping with a little girl. Juno, speechless for the first time, is stuck by the realization that she is not giving her baby to a yuppie professional but to a real mother.
Boring her friend groans after a moment, and maybe some of the viewers are tempted to say the same: Forget the cinematic sappiness and move on. Seeing Vanessa in this new light may not matter to us or to Junos friend. We cant help but see, however, that it matters to Juno, and matters very much. Shes the one carrying the baby, and she wants to give that baby a loving family.
Juno leaves many issues untouched. Is it painful for a woman¯even if shes only sixteen¯to carry a pregnancy to term, only to lay the child in someone elses arms? No doubt, but if Juno feels this pain, it is definitely trumped by her realization that shes far from ready to be a mom. And although the film makes a compelling case for adoption and against abortion¯by showing what is personally possible, if not arguing for what is politically and morally necessary¯it skirts the roots of the problem of teen pregnancy.
Beware the fruits of unprotected sex is the message one would unfortunately expect from the cautionary whale that is pregnant Juno. But thats not exactly what we get here. Although the filmmakers dont explicitly condemn the Planned Parenthood culture, they dont mask its sleaziness either. The receptionist in the abortion clinic, with coarse speech and glazed eyes, offers Juno a free condom: berry-flavored, like pie, were told¯and even the worldly-wise teenager grimaces in disgust.
The bottom line is this, says University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox : The erosion of the norm of premarital sexual abstinence, both in belief and behavior, has had serious emotional and physical consequences for our nations teens¯especially young women. It has also been a driving force behind soaring illegitimacy rates.
Is abstinence the answer? Do healthy, traditional families help as the best place for kids to learn that life-long love and commitment are ideals within ones grasp? Juno doesnt give the answers. But in the heroines frank dialogue with her parents, friends, and the people who will adopt her baby, this film pulls such crucial questions into mainstream culture.
Just about the best movie of the year, says the Chicago Sun Times Roger Ebert . Judging from the packed theaters and box-office success, hes not alone in his opinion. Juno may lead audiences to question the causes and consequences of teen pregnancy. The fact that so many people are intrigued by a pro-adoption teen comedy may itself be a sign of hope.
Amanda Shaw is a junior fellow at First Things .