I only in the vaguest sense remember covering archetypes during my college years, whether it was during film school or Western Lit or a composition course, I don't recall. Something something Beowulf begat Lord of the Rings begat Star Wars begat Carl Jung droning on and on begat the Meyers-Briggs test begat this breathtakingly dull course, and so on. I wasn't particularly intrigued until it brought up Star Wars, and then only long enough to copy down someone else's notes befor falling asleep again (I slept a lot in college). But I did store the fact that an archetype (n., ar·che·type) is, as Jung put it, innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic themes of human life emerge. Or, less boorishly, a generic personality on whose framework we hang the basic themes of life.
It is certainly possible (and likely preferable) to talk about Juno and not address character archetypes, but I just don’t have any desire to. Juno is a sweet, delicate comedy about a girl named Juno (Ellen Page) who gets pregnant, keeps the baby, and makes plans to give it to a successful, beautiful couple who have no children. Hijinks do not ensue. There, I covered the plot, let’s talk about archetypes. Jung would be so proud, the pompous Swiss bastard.
A good portion of the reviews I’ve read of Juno focus on the fact that the film hands us characters we’ve seen before: popular best friends, geeky love interests, clueless parents, etc., then turns them on their head (though not literally, it’s not that sort of comedy), but I disagree. I don’t think the film (and by extension, screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, whose efforts here I’ll address in a moment) are actively flipping these characters so that they do what we don’t expect, I think we’ve trained ourselves to believe that movie characters can only behave in certain patterns, and that whenever characters move in directions opposite of the ones which we have unconsciously charted for them, we read it as the creators playing with convention, without considering that the creators may have abandoned convention altogether.
There are only so many classic archetypes in literature - the Shadow, the Child, the Self, the Wisecracking Sidekick, Woody Allen, and the Top Hat all spring to mind as I recall my college notes - but we’ve adapted or created a large number for our film culture. Many are recognizable on sight; cinema is filled with the perfect girl who can’t see past her own feelings of inadequacy, the charismatic man who can’t learn to commit until the girl of his dreams is almost gone, the plucky underdog who needs to prove his worth to himself, and whatever the hell you'd call what Steve Zahn does. I don’t mean to dismiss archetypes in this column because archetypes are important, they help us relate to the story and to each other, which is why they’ve lasted so long. Luke Skywalker is an archetype, which is why so many people grow up believing, subconsciously (and sometimes consciously), that they’re just like him, a lonely kid with big dreams but even bigger, unrealized potential. God knows I believe it, and that’s without even getting into my deeply held belief that if I keep trying hard enough, I’ll discover I have the Force and won’t have to get up to grab the remote anymore.
The truth is that the characters of these movies don’t fit these molds because they’re real people. They're not actually real people, because this is not a documentary, not that anyone would see a documentary about a pregnant teenager, not even if it was filled with quaint indie acoustic songs, but my point is that they're like real people. They feel like real people. They don’t always act in absolute accordance to their beliefs, they get upset when they should be sympathetic, they have strange quirks that make us uncertain if we’d really want to spend a lot of time around them. Quirks are supposed to unequivocally draw you to or drive you from a character, so that their obsessive train-set hobby or love for abandoned parakeets tells you whether or not this is someone we should be rooting for, but Juno never lets you off that easy. The characters' interests are never metaphors for larger parts of their characters, they’re just pieces of who they are. Which makes it so much more moving when you see a character do the right thing, because there’s never any way to know, really, what they were going to do otherwise. We know, we always know, that Matthew McConaughey will get the girl at the end of the movie because he’s a charismatic man who can’t learn to commit, but he loves dogs and helps his autistic nephew win an archery competition, and so he’s bound to win her over a few minutes before her boat sails for the Galapagos. Here, we’re never quite certain.
Early in the movie, Juno treks to an abortion clinic and is accosted out front by a girl from her school who tells her that the baby inside of her has fingernails. We know, because we know what sort of movie this is, that Juno will not abort the baby, but to see her suddenly light up at the prospect that the fetus inside her has fingernails isn’t just a revelation to her, it’s a revelation to us. She leaves the clinic and we see, in that moment, another side of Juno; and the great part about this movie is that we get characters who have more than just two sides, so that we can continue discovering, the whole movie long, who these people are.
Juno – the character, not the movie – would probably be interpreted as part of the Skywalker mold in a traditional film critique, an adaptation of the plucky hero, but I think, if you had to put her into a box, she’s more like the perfect girl. Juno pretends to be clever and impulsive and unique and is too inadequate to realize that underneath she really is clever and impulsive and unique, and brave, and thoughtful, and wise. She never realizes it either, not even at the end, which is what makes her so attractive as a main character – we, too, would like to believe that we have brilliant qualities visible to everyone else but hidden eternally from us. Perhaps that’s Juno’s archetype, if such an archetype exists.
I’ve been reading Cluck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, and there’s a section in it where he addresses, albeit briefly, the notion of archetypes in popular culture.
“The character of Angela on ABC’s short-lived drama My So-Called Life was Byzantine and unpredictable and emotionally complex, and all that well-crafted nuance made her seem like an individual. But Angela was so much an individual that she wasn’t like anyone but herself; she didn’t reflect any archetypes. She was real enough to be interesting, but too real to be important.”
What’s interesting about the quote is that when Klosterman wrote it several years ago, it seemed truer than it is now. But My So-Called Life has stuck with popular culture better than Saved By The Bell (the show Klosterman was reviewing at the time), and is undergoing a bit of a revival right at the moment (a DVD box set was just released, and ABC is currently screening old episodes on their website). The show has proved to be more lasting not because it is better – though it certainly is – but because Angela was so real that it took us a long time to realize that she was important, and viewers related to her strongly because she was so much of an individual that it took us years to recognize that this made her just like us.
The wonder of Juno is that each character is so well-defined in their humanity that the decisions they make, both correct and incorrect, never seem out of place with who they really are, and yet each decision made moves the story speedily along. Diablo Cody, through Reitman’s direction and the stalwart performances of these actors, has made people so real that the smallest glance and hesitation explains volumes about who they really are, which is why these reviewers who spent the movie unconsciously filling in the gaps of their personalities with archetypes are so surprised at the end by the actions of the characters, when a closer observation would’ve revealed how true each action is the character we’ve seen developed the whole length of the film.
Indeed, I wondered if they managed to notice the characters at all. Most of the reviews heap praise on the film but – because every reviewer has to point out a flaw in every film in order to prove that they have liberal arts degree – they mention how the film is “fast-talking” or has “dialogue like a sugar rush,” or mentions an abundance of teen-speak and slang-heavy conversations, as if it's a good film held back by its desire to be too hip for the room. I make the opposite case, that the film is actually quite sparse in its use of dialogue. Truth be told, the exchanges sometimes move at a whip-fast pace, with Page in particular running her lines at a head-spinning rate. But the pace is never a stylistic choice, always a character one: Juno speaks so quickly to hide her uncertainty behind a solid wall of snark. But in the more delicate moments, Reitman and Cody know that the slightest hint will suffice.
There’s a part in the film where, upon meeting Juno, the adoptive mother (Jennifer Garner) says to her “Some people are born to be certain things; I was born to be a mother.” In that one line, with her tone and her smile and her posture, Garner conveys everything. Without another word, we understand that her whole life has been leading up to this moment, that the last five years have involved endless trying and fertility tests and nights spent lying awake and constant tension between her and her husband, yet Garner says the line with such hope that you understand that she really believes she was meant for this, that this has always been who she was meant to become. All with just one line.
Jason Reitman directs this film with the same effortless capability he showed in Thank You For Smoking, a movie he both wrote and directed. Tellingly, he focuses just as intently on what’s being said here as he did when it was his own words he was translating to screen. Reitman knows that this isn’t dialogue like a sugar rush; that every line matters, because he doesn’t have any archetypes for these people to hide behind. Here, the characters have to speak for themselves.
And the wonder of it is that, in a diluted world of lazy filmmaking, they actually do.
Four and a half stars out of five.