I so rarely critique current movies as part of talking about screenwriting. I know Robert McKee likes to do this in his seminars, and he’s very entertaining — he’s especially funny with movies he dislikes! But I more often point to movies in class that work and tell why. I did this when I first started my workshops by dissecting and providing analysis of Wedding Crashers which, I still maintain, is one of the classic comedies (the breakdown for this will be available soon on our “Tools” page).
This year I want to point out more examples of movies in theaters that not just inspire us, but truly give us insight into what we need to do now to sell our scripts. And a good example is Juno.
Juno is “the little movie that could” that just hit #2 at the box office this weekend. We will be providing a 40-beat breakdown of the movie in our store next week for software users, for what I hope will be the first of a monthly feature.
Part of the mystique of Juno is screenwriter Diablo Cody, and one of the reasons I like her story is: she wrote Juno while slaving away at a part-time job not in LA or NY but in a small town in the Midwest. She is like a lot of us, just a writer with an iMac and a dream. This was my story, too. I was broke, living on $700 a month, and trying to “figure it out” until I wrote my first series of spec sales. It can be done! is the message, and it helps, in Cody’s case, to have a unique sensibility and tremendous talent.
Juno is the story of a teen girl who gets pregnant and decides to bring the baby to term to give it up for adoption. The situation is primal, the poster is clever, and the tone “funny Scarlet Letter for the 21st Century” is seen from frame one to its touching conclusion. And star Ellen Page, whose debut here, much like Julie Christie’s in Billy Liar — that introduced the free-spirited ’60s woman — signals a new generational hero.
What we can mostly learn from the script is how it blows up cliches. This same story is the basis of many an “Afterschool Special” but starting with that template, Cody breaks from every expectation. The question: should Juno get an abortion? is raised in only one scene and dealt with humorously. The filmmakers (director Jason Reitman brought us Thank You for Smoking) are not interested in anything we would traditionally associate with this tale. It’s not about the moral questions raised or the shame of teen pregnancy or keeping the secret from our family, it’s about how an event torques and changes the lives of everyone involved in it — about as good a definition of a good storytelling as there is.
Juno deconstructs and exposes cliches of character too: Juno’s “evil stepmom” turns out to be her biggest ally, the “overachieving Yuppie Wife” (Jennifer Garner), whom Juno gives her child to, turns out to be honorable and true. And the men in her life from her “stern ex military Dad” — a softie, her “dopey boyfriend” — really kind of deep, and even the “hip Yuppie Husband wtith the Iggy Pop collection” — revealed as “bad guy” or at least the “weak link” — all play with our perceptions of who in our world we can admire and what is behind the facade we can all be pigeonholed by. This is a movie that shakes up that cliche view. And it delivers everything I have claimed we need to do to be successful screenwriters: start with the cliche and turn it on its head; “give me the same thing…. only different.”
Bottom line: it’s a simple story, well told.
Juno is attractive as a script because it is inexpensive to produce and perfectly framed for its target market. The “special effects” are clever writing, unique characters, surprising situational turns, and the shattering of cliche. It’s the best example of the amazing opportunities we all have to see our visions realized — if we’re smart about it.
It also hits the beats of the BS2 like a dream!
Take a look at Juno in theaters this week and check out our 40-beat breakdown — coming soon.