First things first. The new indie flick Juno does not glamorize teen pregnancy. Sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) isn't a shrinking violet or a wide-eyed doe who does not understand contraception. (She just doesn't use it). Nor is she someone who sleeps around either. (She got pregnant during her one and only sexual encounter.)
However it's an unfortunate twist of fate that the wide release of this gem of a film happened to coincide with the announcement of a well known, real-life teenager's pregnancy. Jamie Lynn Spears, star of Nickelodeon Zoey 101, and her boyfriend made a mistake, a mistake that tens of thousands of teenagers make each year . . . and, I might add, a mistake that many married adult people also commit otherwise there wouldn't be such a thing as an "oops" baby. Spears has decided to keep the baby and plans to raise the child with her mother, according to press reports.
In some quarters, the teen is being lambasted for her lapse in judgment, with critics pillorying the poor girl. "A few media critics have all but called her a whore and made disparaging white-trash references to her family because of the over-publicized antics of her sister," wrote Mary Sanchez in the Kansas City-Star. Now, if Spears starts extolling the glories of teenage pregnancy, if she exploits the pregnancy and baby as a publicity tool (the money OK! Magazine reportedly paid the Spears family for the exclusive on the pregnancy is precariously close to the line), or if she neglects the child, then the critics would have something onto which they could hang their judgmental hats. Unless or until those things happen, perhaps it would be more prudent to save the tar and feathers for her older, unglued, clearly troubled "adult" sister who didn't make just one mistake in judgment, but an unremorseful bazillion of them.
But the linking of Juno to the Spears story is regrettable because the connection with the scandal-ridden family overshadows what I believe to be one of the strong themes in the film, one I didn't expect to encounter. When I sat down in the theater after having already been primed by reading articles in newspapers and magazines in which skeptics associated Juno, the Spears pregnancy and the recent up-tick in U.S. teenage pregnancy rates People Magazine has a big section of pregnant teens in its new issue), I thought I'd be watching a film that would make it seem as though pregnancy is the new black for teens, or at least make giving up a baby for adoption look "noble and cool," as Katha Pollitt wrote in The Nation.
But I was wrong.
Juno -- the too-cool-for-school, smart but confused teenager whose own biological mother essentially abandoned her except for the cacti she inexplicably mails to her daughter every Valentine's Day - does not turn out to be the singularly most intriguing character. Through her teen pregnancy storyline, the audience is treated to unexpectedly exquisite portrayals by Allison Janney and Jennifer Garner of what it means to be a responsible, loving mother.
Take Janney's character, the nail salon-owning Bren MacGuff who is Juno's step-mother. While she is foul-mouthed and certainly imperfect in many respects, her love for Juno, despite the teen's mega-error in judgment, is distinctly unsentimental. Bren provides Juno with moral support during ultrasounds. She sews stretchy fabric onto Juno's jeans to make maternity wear. She's by her step-daughter's side during the delivery. Bren even, viewers learn, long ago gave up on the notion of having a pet for which she yearned because Juno has a dog allergy. Bren, in all her flawed glory, is more of a mother to Juno than is Juno's absent biological mother, especially in the most challenging moments of Juno's young life.
Then there is Garner's character, Vanessa Loring, the woman who Juno selects, along with her husband Mark (Jason Bateman), to adopt her unborn child. At first, Vanessa is portrayed as arctic and almost too Bree-Van-De-Kamp perfect, in her polished, yuppie home and wearing her demure string of pearls. But Vanessa's heartbreaking longing to become a mother, after suffering through years of infertility and failed adoption attempts, eventually becomes plain, particularly during one scene when Juno spots Vanessa at a shopping mall with a child of one of Vanessa's friends. Juno watches as Vanessa engages in a playful game of tag with the child, and then later witnesses Vanessa tearfully and gratefully thank Juno for allowing her to touch her belly and feel the baby move. Throughout the film, Vanessa does everything in her power to prepare herself for the role for which she believed she was destined- to be a mother -- reading extensively about parenting and wishfully stocking a nursery in order to envelop a baby in a protective cocoon if she ever got the chance to raise an adopted child.
Even Juno, a child-mother, demonstrates selfless courage when she relinquishes her child for adoption (which was her idea) even when it seems as though there is a remote chance that, after laying eyes on the baby for the first time, she might change her mind. Juno definitely learns that getting pregnant has consequences -- such as becoming a pariah in school -- and that it requires maturity to be a good parent.
Motherhood, through the lens that is Juno, is about temporarily shelving the dream owning a dog because your kid has allergies. It's about embracing your child even after she's made a terrible mistake. It's about allowing yourself to overcome your fears that you're going to be disappointed in order to love. It's a life-altering experience, no matter how the title of "mother" is earned, whether it be through childbirth, marriage or adoption. And, when I stepped out of that theater, I didn't feel as though I'd just witnessed an endorsement of teenage sex and procreation, something that would send teens the message that pregnancy, parenthood or placing a child up for adoption is easy or cool. Instead, I'd witnessed an endorsement of the gloriously complex, difficult muddiness of what it means to be a parent.
Meredith O'Brien writes the addictive WORKING MOMS IN POP CULTURE & POLITICS column for www.mommytrackd.com. Mommy Track'd is a fresh and funny website that informs and entertains time-crunched moms as they tackle the daily tug of war between work and home.