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What We Can Learn from Juno

By on January 8, 2008 in About the Beats, Today's Blog

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.

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About the Author: Read about Blake here. .

There Are 19 Comments

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  1. Christina says:

    I loved Juno. I read the script before seeing it, so I could see how director Jason Reitman brought it to life. I was really impressed how he kept the story simple and brought the voice in the script to life.

    A couple take aways for me from the script/movie:

    -Keep it simple, stupid. (The story.) She doesn’t lay a lot of pipe.

    -Use visual call backs (the runners, it starts and ends with a chair, etc.)

    -If you’re writing a teen comedy, make the parents real and part of the story. These were the most realistic (and funny) parents I’ve seen since the parents in Sixteen Candles. John Hughes was really good at developing both teen and adult characters.

    -There were three movies in 2007 about unwanted pregnancies: Waitress, Juno and Knocked Up. Each began with a pregnancy test and each ended shortly after the birth. Each story dismissed the abortion question quickly. But each movie was way different than the others. Moral of the story – just because someone else is doing an “x” film that year doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another. I mean, three comedies about unwanted/unplanned pregnancies in one year? And they were all critical successes, though Waitress didn’t have a huge box office. Wait… the US gross was around $19 million, which is great for an indie. (And another $23 million in DVD rental.)

    Looking forward to your breakdown!

  2. Ben Gilton says:

    Not only a great movie based on great writing (and crack-ups a plenty – I also really enjoyed the dialog) – but I would submit that it’s a real “important” film as well. Like something that should be shown to teens in this situation.

    I liked Waitress and Knocked-up just fine, but didn’t feel like I came away having viewed an “important” movie – Juno was probably the simplest (best production value) of the bunch – drawing me in with it’s enormous heart – like Cody really loved what she was writing.

    Great story – great characters – big heart – as soon as I walked out of the theater – I knew my own writing would change – I knew I needed to find my own Juno.

  3. ben says:

    Juno has one of the best ALL IS LOST sequences that I’ve seen this year. The writer creates a reality– that our hero will give this baby up for adoption and all will be okay… and then gives us a complete REALITY/PARADIGM shift… that leaves our audience completely devastated– when we realize the adopting couple will not stay together… the rug is pulled out from beneath us!!!. It’s a turn and shift that is not too much… the baby didn’t have to die/still birth or something too drastic… but simply the shift from THIS BABY IS GOING TO BE ADOPTED BY THIS COUPLE… to… a big “?” as to what will happen next! Hands down my favorite ALL IS LOST MOMENT of the year!!!

  4. Matthys Boshoff says:

    Unfortunately great US indie films only screen six months later in South Africa so I’ll have to wait…

    If you liked Ellen Page take a look at her lead role in Hard Candy —- absolutely devine!
    For your consideration: don’t be put off by the subject matter of Hard Candy, it is the same thing way different.

  5. Scott says:

    Liked it for many of the reasons you and other posters point out. Didn’t love it.

    As good a job as the author did of breaking cliches with some of the characters (Juno’s dad and stepmother–outstanding), I found myself cringing every time Juno or Jason Bateman’s character devolved into using pop culture references to define themselves. Not sure whether to blame Tarantino or those old Bud ads (“who would you do between Ginger and Mary Ann?”), but when Juno started rattling off her favorite bands, I groaned inside. It was an obvious false note. Ditto when the characters started comparing their favorite obscure horror directors. Pretentious and ugh.

    And she did such a good job of setting up Jennifer Garner’s character as uptight yuppie control freak early on, that, except for the moment in the mall (a GREAT STC scene), I never found that shift to thinking she’d be a great mom.

    Maybe I wanted to like it too much. The danger of having something praised so highly before seeing it.

  6. Alden Bourne says:

    I thought Juno was a great movie as well, but I’m wondering if it would have passed the logline test. In other words, if someone had posted the Juno logline for feedback, would the rest of us be singing the praises of a fantastic concept?

  7. Blake says:

    Really good observation, Alden! I had the same thought about Knocked Up. Very tough to pitch without getting into the details of the characters. Ditto another Rites of Passage winner Napoleon Dynamite. But I think the primal element of this particular girl who faces her pregnancy like Joan of Arc with a ‘tude is the easiest hero to pitch, and the ironic twists of the story are pitchable too. Anyone interested in trying out loglines for Juno, I’d love to see what you come up with!

  8. Christina says:

    My logline for Juno:

    “Plucky pregnant teenager from broken family at crossroads when she finds out seemingly perfect adoptive parents have decided to divorce.”

  9. Blake says:

    CF! You make me proud! Irony! Conflict! Story! Excellent pitch. Any adds we might suggest to sell the comedic possiblities even more?

  10. Christina says:

    Thanks!

    To make it comedic? Hmmm. Good question – all I can seem to come up with are more adjectives:

    Plucky, pop-culture popping, pregnant teenager from broken family…

    Dang. Curious what others might add.

  11. Mike Rinaldi says:

    I think it goes without saying that Diablo Cody has the coolest screenwriting name since Shane Black.

  12. Scooter says:

    Maybe bring in the Paulie character to the logline somehow: i.e. mention that she’s impregnated by the school nerd.

  13. jennab says:

    Really enjoyed Juno…here’s a blasphemous thought: Does the B story…adoptive couple…highjack the A story…Juno & Paulie pregnancy? The marketers wisely sell Page & Cera in ads. Juno is so unflappable about the whole thing…not much conflict there. Why not more with Paulie? After all, the ending (won’t say) is about their relationship, not adoptive couple’s. Prom confrontation was excellent. Wish there were more scenes like that. Bateman’s meltdown…and hit on Juno…felt tacked on just to drum up conflict. Garner’s character was underwritten, like: “She wears pearls. Enough said.” Still, GREAT dialogue (right to the edge of overdone)…lots of heart. LOVE Christina’s pitch.

  14. Robert says:

    Not my favorite movie by any stretch this year, although I agree the there are important lessons to be learned. For me, the dialogue did go over the edge and landed squarely in the overdone category, particularly in the case of Juno. Everyone was just too cool, and I don’t think a 16-year-old in the world would respond to a positive pregnancy test by setting up a makeshift living room on the father’s lawn and telling him the news while chewing a pipe. I felt the love story was her relationship with Jason Bateman (creepy as it was) because Paulie is in the movie for about 4 or 5 scenes. Blake, I think you should add “Lars and the Real Girl” to your breakdowns. I found it to be a far more creative and much better film, but, more importantly, it’s a brilliant example of the STC.

  15. Robert Thompson says:

    Initially, I liked it okay. But I have some serious gripes about it. Well, for one thing, twenty years ago I wrote a story about a smart mouthed pregnant teen girl, and Juno has the very same first seven or eight beats as my story, right up to can’t abort because of the heartbeat. My story is set in the hood at a pregnant girl’s school, my lead character a young African American girl, and I’ve been pushing my script for years. Ouch.
    My biggest problem with Juno is the dialogue, the hiptalk, the pop references that sound like they’re coming out of someone 20 years older then Juno. It will be interesting to see if the writer continues to write that way on other projects. I think that people can tire of that sort of thing pretty quickly, since it really wasn’t consistently funny, but steered more into the oddball range. It just barely worked for a quirky character like Juno; if you try to impose that sort of talk on other characters it just sounds contrived.
    The movie did have heart, and good things going for it, although I do not believe that any parent in history has ever reacted to a child’s pregnancy with such cavalier attitudes.
    And as someone mentioned above, I didn’t really buy that the Bateman character would be tempted to dump Jennifer Garner for a pregnant underage teen.
    I didn’t hate the film, but it doesn’t relate to any reality that I know. The last 15 minutes of the film worked for me, because the goofy hiptalk toned down, and some real emotions were finally exposed.
    I hope that I’m not being too harsh, because as I said, the film has merit in the way that the girl respected life and tried her best to do the right thing as she understood it.

  16. Robert says:

    I thought the first 30 minutes of the movie were slow, and listening to Juno’s over-the-top dialog became grating. I just kept thinking that I wished she would speak like a 16-year-old, and not like a 40-year-old comedienne. I think there were ways to make her funny and endearing, without making her sound like Joan Rivers. I loved the rest of the cast though, particularly Michael Cera. I thought he completely nailed the part of the innocent, sweet, shy teenager. I think he will be the next generation’s Tom Hanks.

  17. Ken says:

    I enjoyed the movie! It left me with two main questions.
    1. Is the movie drawing anything from Greek Mythology other than just mentioning that she was named after Juno, the greek goddess?

    2. What is the deal with the group of runners; are they just a cinematic device or do they symbolize something?

    I would appreciate any feedback.

  18. Mark says:

    It is my opinion that Juno has, by far, one of the best (and strangely, most blatant) “Theme Seated” moments in history.

    After Juno takes her third pregnancy test of the day, the clerk behind the drugstore counter (Rainn “Dwight” Wilson from The Office), says “That’s not an etch-a-sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be un-did.”

    As the movie progresses, full of moments in which Juno is trying to “undo” the pregnancy — along with everything that follows — she finally learns at the end that you don’t have to “undo” something to make it better.

  19. Blake says:

    Great eye, Mark! I agree 100%. In fact, I think Juno is one of the most well-structured movies of last year. It hits all the points of the BS2 like a dream — a point we will demonstrate when we offer the 40 beat breakdown on Juno next month. Little wonder why it’s such a satisfying film!

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