Friday Favorites: Favorite Character – Juno

Welcome to “Friday Favorites” which highlight some of my favorite movie-related things.

Juno is, for me, a near perfect movie.  It owes a lot of its success to a clever script by Diablo Cody and great direction by Jason Reitman, but the bulk of its magnificence rests on the shoulders of its cast.  Ellen Page is Juno, and all of the supporting cast (Michael Cera, J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney and Jason Bateman, just for starters) give heartfelt and genuine performances that are simultaneously hilarious.  But one character that I feel has always gotten a bad rap is Jennifer Garner’s Vanessa.

I’ve had several conversations about Juno with people I know.  Some of them love the movie, some hate it, but one of the surprising things that I hear often enough to bother me is that people hate Vanessa.  They often see her as a selfish bitch, a Type-A control freak who is suffocating her poor husband mark and holding him back from his dreams.  In fact, here’s an article that articulates mosts of the complaints people seem to have about her.  If you read the interview with Jason Reitman in that article, however, he makes it clear that the people who feel that way seem to be missing the point.

Vanessa is only in a handful of scenes in Juno, and from the beginning she’s meant to be a little off putting.  Our first glimpse of her is merely of her hands, as she cleans and straightens everything in their house in preparation for meeting Juno.  When she arrives at the front door, Vanessa is already waiting to open the door.  She hovers over everything, and it seems almost suffocating.  When Juno mentions the ad in the Pennysaver that led her to Mark and Vanessa, Vanessa seems almost disappointed, as if she’s above something as common as the Pennysaver.  She offers payment to Juno for the child.  Overall, Vanessa comes off exactly as Mark describes them to Juno, as a “paranoid yuppie.”

But in one line, all of that perception changes, and everything we thought is called into question.  She says to Juno, “I think pregnancy is beautiful,” to which Juno responds, “You’re lucky it’s not you.”  The look on Vanessa’s face is barely concealed devastation.  Not only is this woman unable to have children, something that has a horribly unfair stigma attached to it in our society, but she also had a previous adoption attempt fall through.  (Read an account from a woman who dealt with similar issues here.)  All of her obsessiveness comes from a place of love.  She’s trying to make everything perfect.  She can’t experience the “normal” process of becoming a mother, so she’s trying to make up for it by doing everything else right.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the scene where she is debating whether to paint the baby’s room custard or cheesecake colored.  It’s something that looks silly from the outside, and Mark makes fun of her for it, but I can totally relate to it.  She’s trying to compensate for what she can’t do by doing everything else that she possibly can.  She has so little control over the situation that she’s holding on to everything she can control.

The difference between how people see Mark and Vanessa is the difference between the two types of fears people seem to have.  People are usually afraid of not having any control and of being controlled by someone else.  People who have an overwhelming sense of the latter tend to feel for Mark and say that Vanessa is controlling his life.  However, the marriage we’ve presented with, though flawed and probably better off having ended, is not an abusive one.  Mark has been an equal player in having one room for his stuff (which, actually, was probably a big gift from Vanessa, because I’d be willing to bet she doesn’t have her own private room for her stuff, but instead shares the “common areas” with Mark).  His flaw comes not from wanting to be independent, but from pretending to be someone he’s not and then bailing out once he’s already committed.  In the end, he’s the selfish one, almost wrecking her realistic adult dream to live out his childish unrealistic one.

But, this is supposed to be about Vanessa, and the reason she’s one of my favorite characters.  It all comes down to one scene, where she encounters Juno in the mall.  Juno first spots her from the balcony, and secretly watches as Vanessa plays with her friend’s daughter.  It’s clear from that moment that Vanessa truly was “born to be a mommy,” and Juno realizes it too.  Watch Ellen Page’s face and see how well she sells Juno’s emotions without words.  Then they run into each other, and Vanessa asks (while overcome with embarrassment) to feel the baby kick.  She puts her hand on Juno and feels nothing, and she’s completely disappointed by trying to hide it.  Juno encourages her to talk to the baby, and she does, her face filled with apprehension.  It’s as though her entire worth as a mother is riding on this moment.

And then the baby kicks, and her face lights up.  It’s a superbly acted scene from Jennifer Garner, and she conveys a wide range of emotions in such a short span.  That scene is why Vanessa is a favorite of mine, and it’s the reason Juno leaves her a note when everything seems to be falling apart:

What do you think?  Are you a fan of Juno?  Do you prefer Mark to Vanessa?  Do you think our society puts an unfair social pressure on women regarding motherhood?  Let me know in the comments!

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