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Saturday, June 5, 2010

Juno Good Characterization When You See It

I just saw the movie Juno for the first time last night. I remember hearing it was very good when it was new, but I don't get out to theaters much and I miss a lot of movies. Eventually this movie slipped out of theaters and out of my consciousness. Just one more flick my artsy friends liked that I never got around to seeing, along with Bend it Like Beckham and Whale Rider. But then one of the cable channels, I forgot which, started advertising that they were going to show the film, which reminded me of its existence, except I don't like to watch movies on broadcast TV because of commercials, editing, and lack of widescreen, so I rented it on iTunes instead. See industry people? Make stuff available for free and people will pay to enjoy it instead. Paradoxical, but seemingly true. (It's funny how I can't stand iTunes for music, what it's intended for, but absolutely love it for renting movies.)

I enjoyed the movie the whole way through, but at first I was enjoying it as just another quirky comedy. Somewhere near the end it dawned on my that I was actually seeing an excellent movie. Afterward, I read up on Juno's critical reception and box office performance. I saw that it won the Oscar for best screenplay for Diablo Cody, which surprises me not at all, and I saw discussion of its portrayal of abortion--which it really did handle sensitively enough that you can think it's pro-whatever-your-side is, regardless of what side you're on. I saw praise for its humor and its dialogue and the performances. What I didn't see much mention of was its characterization.

This may be the best example of characterization I have ever seen. All the stock sentiments about how to create excellent characters, which never come with specifics on how to accomplish them, are carried off here. No major character is a villain, even when some of them are at odds with Juno. The primary and secondary characters are all dynamic, and we gradually learn bits about them, and can see the strengths and flaws of each. The canard that each character is the star of his or her own story is actually brought to life here, as each was treated, again, with respect and sensitivity and none was merely a stand-in for the author to beat up for the sake of making a point.

When I was done watching the movie I tried to mentally retrace how Cody accomplished this--I mean, these are the things everyone says to do, but I rarely see them accomplished this well. It's one thing to say you should treat your secondary characters, and even your adversarial characters, with respect, but actually accomplishing this is rarer. How can I learn from Juno?

Um, here there be spoilers, obviously.

Here's what I've come up with: For the first half of the movie or so, every character actually slides right in to a stock role. Juno is your typical intelligent, brash-mouth, eccentric, sassy teen heroine. She mocks pop culture and high school life and gives us a cheeky narration of the world as she sees it. I've seen her at least a dozen times before. Bleeker is the typical sweet nerd who straddles the line between boy friend and boyfriend. He's awestruck by Juno, obviously in love, and she can't see it. On the other hand, he's too passive to do anything about it. Juno's father is the standard over-indulgent beleaguered dad. Her step-mother is your typical slightly-theatening, not-entirely-welcome step-mother. When she meets Mark and Vanessa, the prospective adoptive parents of Juno's baby, Mark is that sweet, understanding adult who can see past Juno's quirkiness because he still hasn't lost his connection to his own youth. He's the cool dad figure. Vanessa is his shrewish wife who forces him to confine his youthful expressions to one room in his house that she has granted him, where he can keep his guitars and his posters and stuff. She seems a little flaky in her intense desire for a baby. She reads all the baby books and prepares months in advance while Mark advocates a little more common sense. She is the working woman who criticizes work-from-home Mark for not holding up his end of the workload even though he appears to earn more money than she does. She's too serious, while Mark hasn't lost his playful side. We can see that they're headed for problems, but the problems all appear to be Vanessa's fault. All very stock characters in stock interactions. If the movie had kept going in the direction it was headed it would have been entertaining enough, but not necessarily a Very Good Movie.

Sounds like I'm undercutting my point here, huh? But the thing is, it felt to me as though Diablo used those stock roles as our introduction to the characters to give us a handle on them. And maybe that answers the question of how to pull off deep, dynamic characters. Because you can't really front-load all the things that make your characters unique snowflakes, can you? You try to give it all at once and all you have is a messy hodge-podge. But isn't the way it plays out in Juno actually more like how we get to know people in real life? You meet someone, and you immediately pigeon-hole them, not because you're bad or shallow, but because your brain needs to figure out how the world fits together. So this person is a jock or a joker or an artist or a brainy type or an asshole or a drunk or dumb or a minority. I think we first see people as typical whatevers, and I'm not convinced there's anything wrong with that. Then we get to know them as individuals and see how they diverge from that typical role we've classified them as, and the people who become important in our lives become far too complex to possibly boil down to a central characteristic. The loudmouth drunk at the bar that we never see again, though, remains nothing but a loudmouth drunk, as though he has absolutely nothing else going on in his life. The teacher whose class we couldn't wait to get out of remains nothing but a bitch who finds fault in our best efforts, and we neither know nor care about who she is when she leaves the classroom. (For that matter, Beeker's mother is never anything but a nasty, judgmental lady, because she's not central to the story. If she were, we'd probably see the reasons for her bad characteristics and we'd also see her redeeming virtues.) We do stereotype, and I think this is a necessary feature--our brains' only way of making sense of the world. We are freed from those stereotypes to the extent that we remember that they aren't actually the sum of anybody's being, and to the extent that we remain open to revising our generalizations with specific information.

So what I think Cody gives us those easy characterizations on purpose so that we have a starting point, and spends the second half of the movie subverting them one by one. I kept seeing a scene begin and thinking I knew exactly where it was going, and then being surprised when it went somewhere else instead.

The first moment that surprised me was when Juno's stepmother accompanied her to the ultrasound. I was a little surprised to see her there at all, because I had the impression that Juno and she were not close, but I chalked it up to her wanting to have a woman-to-woman moment with her. But then her stepmother reams out the ultrasound technician for making a judgmental remark--it's a beautiful thing, not a hysterical shouting fit but a cold, calculated verbal take-down--and I think, whoa, she's not such a bitch! Or rather, she's a bitch, but she's a good bitch! She doesn't hate Juno or see her as a distracting reminder of her husband's first marriage--she actually cares for her.

The next scene that didn't play out as I foresaw was when Juno and Leah see Vanessa at the mall. I expected them to mock her from a distance, since some antipathy between Juno and Vanessa has already been set up. Or I expected Juno to see that Vanessa was an unfit mother, as she ran around with . . . I think it was her young niece. It was actually a weird moment of . . . crap, I can't think of the right word. I'm going to go with paradigm-shifting: I'm watching this scene and trying to fit it into my preconceived notion of where it's going. Vanessa is running around with this kid and I think she's going to try too hard, show her desperation for a kid by smothering her niece with attention and create an unpleasant scene. But it doesn't happen . . . they just have fun together. Then she runs into Juno and I'm thinking she's going to display her paranoia by accusing Juno of stalking her, but it doesn't happen. Then Juno invites her to feel the fetus kicking, and it seems as though the fetus won't kick for Vanessa, though it will for everyone else, and this seems like it's going to make a point about Vanessa's unfitness to be a mother. Juno encourages Vanessa to talk to her fetus, and a tender-awkward scene ensues, and I'm waiting for Vanessa to screw it up, but she doesn't. And then the scene ends and I realize it didn't play to my expectations. It was awkward, yes--so's real life. In the end we see Vanessa not as this shrill rival but as a person, with faults and virtues, who happens to want very badly to be a mother.

But the scene that really subverted my expectations was Juno's last scene inside Mark and Vanessa's home. In keeping with my expectations of Juno as a sassy teen and Mark as a warm, friendly older guy, I'm expecting that Juno's mom or Vanessa are going to perceive something creepy about the friendship between Juno and Mark when there isn't, because they Just Don't Understand. But then Juno and Mark are alone in his house and they're getting closer and closer--uncomfortably close. And I'm watching the scene, revising my expectations, and thinking, okay, Juno, because she is naive, has fallen in love with Mark, but he doesn't realize what's going on in this scene because he thinks of her as a kid, or because he thinks nothing can happen with her because she's pregnant. She's going to embarrassingly cross some line, and he's going to have to pick up the pieces and that's where this is going . . . . Only that wasn't it at all. Instead, it's Mark who has developed an attraction for Juno, and Juno who didn't see it coming because she saw him as this safe adult, and it's Juno who is most definitely Not Okay with this. Because, sure, Mark is this fun-loving kind guy who has not lost his youthful side, but he's also, we now see, shallow and immature and not yet ready to act like a grown-up. And yet, he has a point when he defends himself in the inevitable confrontation with Vanessa--just because she decided she was ready to have a child didn't mean he was ready for the same thing. (Of course, a grown-up, a man, would have communicated with his wife before it got to this point. Vanessa is controlling because Mark can't or won't communicate.) Mark's the closest thing to a villain in this movie, because there's just no getting around his inappropriate attachment to a sixteen-year-old, but we do see his virtues and his side of things, even if in the end we conclude that he's kind of a jerk. (But again the reversal, because we spend half the movie thinking he's cool and Vanessa's awful.)

There isn't as clear-cut a moment of reversal with Juno's father. He's sweet throughout. But at first he seems to be played as your stereotypical Stupid Dad, and we see through his conversation with his wife when Juno's not there, and with how he deals with Juno throughout the movie, that he's not stupid at all. He's actually one of the few smart, loving dad figures in film.

So, to sum up, Diablo Cody seems to use standard character tropes to get us into the story, to introduce us to the characters, and then spend the rest of the movie subverting those tropes, and fleshing out the major characters through scenes that defy our expectations.

Can this be applied to every kind of story? I don't know. I think it necessarily changes a story when you portray all the characters as people trying to walk their journeys to the best of their abilities (whether they're flawed or not). In Vanishing Act, Uncle Danny is a villain. There's no doubt about that. I tried to flesh him out, and to understand his rationalizations for why he acts the way he does, but he's really just a jerk. Chris's father is half villain and half spineless loser. As the story progresses, you may learn more about the characters and why they are as they are, but I don't know that I ever really subvert who they seem to be. (And that's hardly unique. Most stories don't.) If I had it to do over again, where would the story go if I decided to make things not be as they appear? I guess I'd have to start with more sympathetic portrayals of Danny and Steve, if I want Chris to end up where he does. Maybe have Paul and Michelle seem more like clueless marks at first. (Now I find myself wondering if Cody planned the reversals at first, or if she got halfway through a typical teenage dramedy and then just decided halfway through that it would be more interesting if, in the words of Wierd Al, "everything you know is wrong."

I don't know. Food for thought, neh?


Katrina L. Lantz said...

Very insightful post! This was my favorite part:

"You meet someone, and you immediately pigeon-hole them, not because you're bad or shallow, but because your brain needs to figure out how the world fits together. So this person is a jock or a joker or an artist or a brainy type or an asshole or a drunk or dumb or a minority. I think we first see people as typical whatevers, and I'm not convinced there's anything wrong with that. Then we get to know them as individuals and see how they diverge from that typical role we've classified them as, and the people who become important in our lives become far too complex to possibly boil down to a central characteristic."

That's spot-on, in my book. And you're definitely right about us all using stereo-types in storytelling, too. The key isn't to make them unique as snowflakes right off the bat. Let the reader think they know this person, and then surprise them. Like you said, that's real life.

Very well-put!

Joe Iriarte said...

Thanks! And thanks for stopping by! :)