** Warning: Plot spoilers**
A few weekends ago I had an adoption related film festival of sorts when I viewed Juno and The Italian. Both movies were viewed with adoptee friends and I had various thoughts/feelings about them. They couldn’t have been more different in every way.
Juno is a quintessential American-indie-film, with quirky visuals, props, dialog and music and felt in taste and style every bit like the Sunny D the main character chugs in the opening sequence. I felt I was waaaay too old to see this movie and that it amped my geekish, loser cred the minute the film began. This was all the more confirmed when I found out it is the favorite movie of my 14-year old daughter’s entire middle school.
The Italian, on the other hand, is a quintessential grim, foreign-subtitled melancholic film that is complex and layered and has no easy answers. If Juno was Sunny D, The Italian was the morning after a round of vodka shots.
Okay, metaphors aside, the two movies can’t really be compared because the themes are so vastly different. One features the coming of age story of a smart-aleky teen who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and decides to make an adoption "plan" (in other words, the view of the birth mom or first mom who relinquishes); the other is the story of the child who is abandoned and who is the subject of the adoption "plan," (in this case, to be adopted by a wealthy Italian couple).
Juno has been the critic and popular darling, owing to its fast-paced and unusual dialog and portrayal of a smarter-than-your-average-bear teen girl protagonist who, rather than wringing her hands and emoting over this "oops," treats the fetus like an inconvenient growth she can’t wait to dispose of. I left the movie feeling like despite it’s salty characters and working-class hero anthem it was, in fact, a pro-life, white adoptive middle class yuppie parent’s dream movie. Juno gets pregnant, but does she abort? No! In fact, thanks to the heavily accented, stereotyped, poorly-conjugating, Su Chin (why the f*** do Koreans ALWAYS have to have heavy accents, as if it’s impossible to think there may be at LEAST 10,000 Koreans in Minnesota – there are that many adoptees alone – who speak more Fargo than hangul?) Juno realizes she cannot abort her baby-with-fingernails. And once Juno finds the perfect adoptive parents from the penny saver (notice that they are 2nd choice after her first choice – a "cool graphic designer, mid-thirties, with a cool Asian girlfriend who totally rocks the bass" – guess because the graphic designer doesn’t have a racial designation he is supposed to be white?), she can get on with being an "unconventional, quirky teen."
The adoptive parents also get their dream – a healthy white infant from a healthy white teenaged girl whose boyfriend is a healthy white teen boy. And, whipped cream on top, she doesn’t want an open adoption!
While I appreciate a female protagonist who actually looks like a real live teenaged girl, one that my own daughter would find relatable (unlike the materialistic, Mean Girls typically portrayed in the media), I just couldn’t quite get past the detachment with which Juno treats her pregnancy and ultimate relinquishment to the yuppie adoptive parents. No homestudy for these parents, it’s all done privately via a lawyer (which by the way is completely unethical that Juno isn’t represented by a different attorney – the adoptive parent’s attorney should have insisted that she have her own lawyer, and is illegal in Minnesota).
It was also interesting that Juno is essentially repeating her own abandonment story, as her mom abandoned her as a young child and her only contact is the annual cactus she sends to Juno. The prickly relationship is an apt metaphor for Juno – but there is again no hand wringing over this, no introspection of how Juno is set to be her mother by abandoning her child, nothing. Just lots of blue slushies and hamburger phones.
I also really detested the unnecessary jabs at Asians and people of color. Why were we all included merely as the butt of jokes, just for laughs? Seriously, the entire theater was guffawing at Su Chin, and Vijay (boyfriend Paulie Bleeker’s teammate) and at the "cool graphic designer with an Asian girlfriend comment) – plus, I was irritated by the applause when stepmom Bren chews out the only other non-white character, the ultrasound tech. And how many people caught the comment Juno says about adopting from China?
"I hear they’re shooting them out of cannons over there." [I got the quote wrong – the right quote is "You shoulda gone to China. You know, ’cause I hear they give away babies like free iPods. You know they pretty much just put them in those t-shirt guns and shoot them out at sporting events."]
And these slams against people of color were all picked up by my daughter too. She wanted to like the movie but felt it lacking. Many of my work colleagues – all social workers – told me in defense of the movie that "that’s how teenage moms act" when I complained about Juno’s emotional detachment to having a baby and relinquishment. I thought that was a pretty generalized assessment (since the teen moms I’ve worked with have mostly been highly invested emotionally) but then, it speaks to the bias that permeates social workers who case manage sexually active teen girls in foster care. My daughter also felt that part of the movie was just not realistic. She said she and most of her friends would not be so emotionally detached and that being detached was not indicative of Juno’s maturity but the opposite, her immaturity or inability to deal with the situation.
So, overall, I give the movie an A for it’s visual appeal and music and a C for it’s handling of adoption. The movie actually isn’t about adoption or pregnancy, it’s a plot devise to showcase a quirky girl, a different protagonist, in fact the younger version of Diablo Cody (the screenwriter who hails from Minnesota where the movie is set). Cody has stated herself in interviews that she knows nothing about adoption. My guess is she didn’t really do much beyond "googling" adoption and based this plot theme on stereotypes.
As I was watching this movie I thought about another teen pregnancy movie – Saved! – which I really liked. In this movie, the teen also decides to parent instead of abort. In this movie the father of the child wants to stay involved. In this movie, a group of misfits come together to form an unconventional yet community family. This movie is about openness and acceptance and the ways in which families can expand to depths and breadths maybe previously unknown. Unlike Juno, which for all its surface layer of being rebellious and unconventional, was in reality the most strident heterosexual, white, nuclear normative-family promoting movie I’ve seen in a long time.*
*yes, I know that Vanessa ends up adopting as a single mom, but it still falls into the normative family paradigm.