As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Persepolis & Juno: teenagers that trouble me

Posted by Hedwig on February 6, 2008

“Teenagehood”, as director Céline Sciamma so charmingly calls it, is a troubled period, full of doubts, strong opinions, even stronger feelings, full of turmoil and change, even if you don’t have to flee your country or don’t get knocked up. It’s a fascinating period too, one that lends itself very well to both drama and comedy (and even horror). But also one that’s difficult to depict successfully on the screen. The pain of being a teenager might be universal, but the details are all to easy to get wrong.

I wanted to love Persepolis. And even after the backlash started, I thought I’d love Juno. Somehow, I ended up with lukewarm feeling for both, and quite a bit of confusion. Why the ambivalence? Why was it impossibly for me to either love or even hate these two depictions of adolescence?

For Persepolis, I think the answer lies mainly in the structure of the narrative. What’s that Graham Green quote used to such great effect in Donnie Darko? Something about a plan that was “now, in his fifteenth year, crystallized with the pain of puberty”? But in Persepolis, nothing much crystallizes. Marjane the teenager is not that different from Marjane the kid, except maybe that she’s interested in boys and smokes. While the animation of her features changing abruptly one by one is among the funniest sequences in the film, she comes out clean. Almost unaffected. She never even rebels against the saintly parents that provided the history lessons in the first part of the film.

More importantly, Marjane’s story meanders. Oh, of course, all our lives do, punctuated by the obvious crises, with great boring stretches in between. Very few people have lives that automatically fit within a neat three-act structure. But while Persepolis is autobiographical, that doesn’t excuse a lack of momentum – worse, a lack of any narrative tension – in the fiction film made out of Marjane Satrapi’s life.

I don’t mean to be hating. Persepolis is a film worth seeing, with some great sequences and beautiful use of animation. But worthy of the all the accolades it’s been given, worthy of the IFFR audience award? I’m not sure.

Juno‘s problems are different, and most seem to revolve around the character of the title character. Some love her, some hate her, and that seems to mostly determine how people feel about the film as a whole. Me? I like Juno. If she’d been at my high school, I probably would have felt a little intimidated by her, and might have tried to emulate her way of speaking and the eclecticism of her taste. Or I might have hated her, I don’t know. In any case, I disagree with the notion that she’s not realistic, too smart and too loquacious for a sixteen year-old: I’ve known quite a few girls who defined themselves by their preferably unusual tastes and unique way of talking. In a way, I was, and maybe still am, one of them. I just was never that good at it, never assured enough.

My quibble isn’t even with the fact that the script is terribly overwritten (“Honest to blog”. Really?), or with the fact that all characters sound the same. No, mostly I can’t bring myself to love Juno because the movie is so untrue to its main character, and I blame this largely on Jason Reitman. How, when your character pretty much defines herself by the horror movies and punk music she loves, do you make such a cutesy movie, with indie/emo songs cover to cover? I mean, I love Belle & Sebastian, I loved them even more when I was 16, but a punk-lover like Juno would immediately dismiss them as twee.

And the movie itself, too, is much too twee. Bleeker’s tic-tac habit (which, as remarked somewhere, I think during the Film Exprience Oscar symposium, was only present to be a joke, and never actually seen), the whole business with the chair, the gallon of Sunny-D…Not only do you not feel the weight of Juno’s pregnancy, the importance of her problems, but she never becomes a real person, let alone a real teenager. I think people complaining about the ‘realism’ of her character are actually put-off by the blanket of preciousness Reitman (and Cody) cover her with.

Again, I don’t mean to be a hater.  I like a lot about Juno – the performances, for one, and some great, funny scenes- and I certainly enjoyed watching it. There were just too many little moments that made me grind my teeth.

Is there then no depiction of adolescent girls I can find myself in, that I can defend? I guess you’ll just have to wait until my discussion of Naissance Des Pieuvres/Water Lilies to find out.

13 Responses to “Persepolis & Juno: teenagers that trouble me”

  1. I think I liked Persepolis a wee bit more than you did, but mainly I’m giving it a free pass because of the lovely animation. I loved the bits where she was a little girl and even her teenage years were pretty good, but not so much after that.

    It’s too bad because there was sooo much potential there.

  2. sarcastig said

    It’s strange I sometimes fault movies for not achieving their potential, yet sometimes also reward movies for having lofty goals even if they don’t quite reach them (i.e. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). I might be a bit unfair on Juno and Persepolis. But I just never lost myself in them, and I guess that’s where the slightly negative feelings come from.

  3. Sometimes it has to do with expectations. When a movie sneaks up on you, it’s easier to forgive its flaws and admire its intentions, but both Juno and Persepolis were heavily hyped.

    The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford had a lot of expectations behind it, but critical reception wasn’t all that warm so in the end it felt more like a discovery.

    All the more amazing for me that NCfOM and There Will Be Blood actually managed to transcend both the hype and my own built in ridiculous expectations

  4. I still haven’t seen Persepolis, but it is on my list, and the animation does look refreshing. I have no idea when it is released in SA, but I know it is out on DVD at Amazon, is it worth buying though? I guess it depends on ones liking of the film….

    I was expecting something so mediocre when I went to see Jesse James, but I was so wrong, and it ended up being one of my favourite films of last year. I love that too, when you seem to “discover” a film that has been bashed around by so many people is actually great.

    As for No Country and TWBB Craig – I have yet to have my NOW HUGE expectations tested, they are both released soon though.

    I thought Ellen Page was great, but I get the whole thing about the film having an indie soundtrack, when Juno was so clearly a punk lover – that I did find a fault, and I won’t deny it, but must say I found it easy to get over.

  5. I must learn to remember things before I select “submit”, but when I saw Juno, it had very little hype or buzz surrounding it, so that could be why I liked it so much, it was sort of like a “discovery”, but then it opened in America, and bam….the magic of the film was lost to many people, but not me or Roger Ebert 🙂

  6. Juno I think would’ve made a great little ‘discovery’. I saw it pretty early, but the writing was still on the wall.

    Ah well, it did just fine without me on the bandwagon, didn’t it?

    For some reason Nick, I thought you’d seen NCfOM already. Damn…that sucks.

  7. sarcastig said

    I think you’re both right it’s better to be able to ‘discover’ a film. One of the things I liked most about the film festival was being able to walk into a movie with no prior knowledge whatsoever, except for the two, three sentences in the program booklet. I should refrain from reading so many reviews in advance… but that would mean not reading either of your blogs, and how could I possibly bring myself to do that?

    Juno and Persepolis definitely got hurt by the hype: I liked them both, just not as much as I’d hoped I would. Some movies survive though: I couldn’t have been more eager to see NCfOM, and it blew my mind just the same.

  8. “One of the things I liked most about the film festival was being able to walk into a movie with no prior knowledge whatsoever” Yes! it’s like going blind into a candy store.

    You know, one of the things that helped convince me to start blogging was a disatisfaction in film festival coverage by a certain jaded movie blogger whose name rhymes with Chef Smells. His coverage was sooo cynical and been-there-done-that. There was no sense of a love of movies or the joy of discovery, it was all about being the first to find the next popular hit. Very dispiriting and disappointing.

    I’m hoping in the next year or so to start going to more film festivals and covering them and I hope I never get that way. Why bother doing it?

  9. Nick Plowman said

    I agree too, and I do love candy stores.

    And I am so glad I found your blog Craig, and your’s Sarcastig, I can’t get enough of them.
    That Chef Smells fellow could drive me to suicide if I ever had to read another word he wrote, he makes me ill.

    I wish SA had more festivals, we seem to have an obsession with Gay or wildlife festivals, and I am not a fan of either….but we have a few good ones (I usually miss them on account of school getting in the way) like a few French cinema festivals, Documentary festivals and last year they started a “Festival of Festival” where all the film that were creating or were bound to create buzz were screened, like Juno, Atonement, Jesse James, but strangely enough, only about 6 people went to the festival. It just shows how little film is appreciated in South Africa, I mean we have ONE film critic that is worth mentioning, and a bunch of “journalists” who have no idea what they are talking about. How off-track did I just go? Sorry about my rambling.

    And finally, Craig, if I had seen No Country, I would have been way more involved in the many discussions that were held on your blog about the film, and wouldn’t have had to sit them out. But it was an honest mistake.

    I read the book though, so I am anticipating the film very much.

  10. Catherine said

    Two years ago, I was the age Juno is in the film and at the time I loved both Belle & Sebastian and more rougher, punk stuff. I agree that the relentless bombardment of jangly twee songs were a little much, but it is possible to enjoy both genres. Although, I began to feel dismay when she first had never heard of Sonic Youth and then dismissed them “just noise”. Nooo, Juno. Nooo!

  11. Abbi said

    Random and late comment, but I was just searching the web for a Persepolis character list when I came across this little Juno & Marji flame. First of all: read the book. Persepolis is a beautiful and envious graphic novel, one that will open the spoiled eyes of Americans. You might not have seen a change from childhood to adulthood for Marji in the film, but it is there so bright and obvious it almost hurts. Marji is the same person, as we all are, but everything about her changes. Her maturity, her communication skills… but mostly her feelings for her country. Also, for Juno, I feel you are being unfair on the matter. Everyone claims that Juno is unrealistic. But consider this: most movie characters are. The common reason people seem to think Juno isn’t is because she brings such great attention to situations that occur in everyday life. The character herself is meant to be bold and stunning, something that is easily pulled off because she’s a pretty girl and has an incredible personality. But the little-known fact is that there are MANY people like Juno. I have friends that I compare her to. I would also disagree with the musical stereotype you’ve got going on there. Just because Juno likes the Stooges doesn’t mean Kimya Dawson can’t bellow in the background. She doesn’t “define” herself by punk music. Too many people do, but Juno doesn’t. Juno doesn’t even listen to indie, but look at her! She’s a walking indie movie poster. Where’s the punk attire? Juno is a character who is meant to be unrealistic to draw attention to her personality.

    I wouldn’t worry to much about those two chicks. They aren’t going to make kids want to leave their country or have babies with their best friends. They are meant to entertain, so enjoy :).

  12. Lanchka said

    To reply directly to the above: Personally, I think that books and movies based upon said books should be divorced from each other; since they so often diverge, and greatly so, why should a critique of a movie have to be tempered by appreciation/praise of the book it’s based on?

    Perhaps a book’s credentials (awards, critical praise, legions of rabid fans, etc) heighten one’s expectations of the movie, but I believe it’s legitimate to criticize the movie completely independently of the book, and even without having read the book. A critic without prior knowledge of the book may be even more suited to reviewing the movie because he/she comes to the story with a fresh and open mind — and is able to judge the movie independently on its own merits.

    As for the notion that we ought to enjoy characters and their stories simply because they were created to entertain, wow, we must agree to disagree. In my opinion, it depends completely on the prism through which you choose to view the work in question, and thus I find it rather glib to dismiss someone’s critique as missing the point merely because of the belief that the movies were intended as nothing more than entertainment. Everyone reads a text differently; and in the end, “Some like it hot, some like it cold, some like it in the pot nine days old.”

  13. sarcastig said

    Thanks for having my back, Lani 🙂 Actually, you said exactly what I would have replied myself. I hate when people use a book to defend the movie made of it, just like I think “but that’s how it really happened!” is not a valid excuse when it comes to movies based on a true stories. Movies should be judged on their own merit, not on the collaterals.

    I’d like to point out that I didn’t attack the ‘realism’ of Juno. I don’t doubt people like her exist- I’ve met a few. What I argued with was the consistency of her character. And no, true, most people are full of contradictions, but again, this is not an argument in a fictional universe: oddly enough, the “realism” of fictional characters has very little to do with their resemblence to “real” people. It’s a different ballgame. That might explain the contradiction in your comment, Abbi: first, you defend Juno by saying there’s MANY people like Juno, but then, you turn around and say that she’s meant to be unrealistic. Maybe you meant unusual, and that she is: there are, alas, not many fictional characters like her out there.

    I feel like I should say this again: I liked Juno. I’m not a basher. I’m just not as over-the-moon as most people, I thought the hype was ridiculous, and it’s not in my top 10 of the year.

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