The Opposite of Choice


It appears that the conventional wisdom has labeled "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" the anti-"Juno." It's true that the films are polar opposites: "Juno" is a sunny and clever look at a young woman who does not get an abortion in America, while "4 Months" is a dark, harrowing portrait of a young woman, Otilia, who arranges an abortion for her friend in communist Romania.

The transformations that our heroines undergo diverge dramatically as well. Juno uses her own reproductive choice to help another woman become a mother and in the process, learns to trust a man enough to fall in love with him. Otilia sacrifices her own bodily integrity to help another woman secure an abortion and it annihilates her trust in the man she loves. Juno grows from an angsty teen into a self-assured young adult. Otilia goes from a confident young woman to a diminished version of her former self.

While each movie stands alone on artistic merits and each is worthy of dozens of essays (who'd have thought that two movies that touch on abortion would be among the year's most lauded?) their contrast is remarkable. Together, they paint a complete picture of the value of reproductive choice. Without her freedom to choose, Juno would be a lot more like Otilia: she would lose the humor and independence that makes her lovable, her energy subsumed by a society that lays claim to her body.

With Juno's reproductive freedom comes her ability to be a fully realized human being, to use hamburger-shaped phones, jam on her guitar and fall in love.

"Juno" is a refreshing film mostly because of its female protagonist. For once, audiences were flocking to a serious movie that was written by a woman, about a woman. Juno is written and acted as though she's a (gasp!) real person. Her jokes are hilarious, she's a hundred times more intelligent than the bland love interests in Judd Apatow's raunch-fests, and she avoids the jello-mold of romantic comedy heroines. As the film progresses, we understand Juno more and more: her hip one-liners are a defense mechanism masking teenage insecurity and sadness over her parents' breakup. But the cutesiness dies down as Juno learns to accept life's many imperfections-giving her baby to a single mother, embracing her gawky best friend in his short shorts, deciding that her flawed family, dog-obsessed stepmother and all, is okay by her. Juno's character arc complete, we shed a few happy tears, and leave the theater satisfied.

And yet, the mechanics of Juno's choice are understated, to say the least. There's an offhand reference to parental notification at one clinic, and then at the magically conjured second clinic there's a lone protestor (a fellow classmate of Juno's, armed with memories of Juno's gossip-worthy hijinks). Once Juno goes ahead with the pregnancy, she receives some nasty looks, but even for a teen in a comfortable suburb, she basically gets a free pass. Not so realistic. Okay, so the screenwriters and director have made a decision to skirt the complexities of choice in America in order to show deeper character development. Juno's pregnancy is a device to illustrate her personal growth, which is most definitely a luxury of setting a film in a place where choices are readily available.

This is why it's so ridiculous that some anti-choicers have appropriated "Juno." From the crayoned-in opening credits onward, "Juno" takes place in a near-utopian world of near-complete freedom of choice, a world where a character can say, "Hey, look at all these reproductive options! I'm going to browse around and pick the one that jives with my own personal sensibilities and emotional needs. Groovy."

That strain of decision making in a vacuum is totally absent in the distant world of "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," where the state aggressively tries to co-opt reproduction. Otilia, the star of this nightmare, must therefore be a less fully realized character than Juno. We never learn what motivates her, what rock bands and hairstyles she prefers, because she is almost entirely focused on survival–and the illegal medical procedure that enables that survival. At first, Otilia seems brisk and confident, with an almost mechanical precision in her ability to bargain her way through the grey hallways and bleak streets of her totalitarian homeland. Fueled by a constant black-market cigarette habit, the wiry, intense Otilia carefully balances her obligations. On the one hand is her friend Gabita, a naive girl who has already lost most of her agency, and on the other is Otilia's own well-meaning but boorish boyfriend. But the balance is thrown off when Otilia realizes how perilous her calmly-assumed task actually is, and how impossible it is to be on equal terms with a man in a society that limits women's choices. She asks her boyfriend what he'd do if "it" happened to her; his evasive non-answers are as shocking to the audience as the graphic abortion scene itself. Otilia's subsequent inability to function in normal, jovial company, revealed during an excruciating dinner party, reflects her loss of humanity. Her final accusatory stare reminds us that she will have to struggle to get that humanity back. (And it's hardly necessary to point out that no matter how painful and brutal the ordeal of these two women becomes, not once do they decide that the abortion is not worth the trouble. In their minds, there is no other option.)

There are plenty of Junos in the world, empowered by their reproductive freedom. But there are far more Otilias, women who are psychologically crippled by restrictions on those freedoms. Many of these Otilias exist in America's present and past, and their absence from the big screen in favor of a parade of winsome young mamas (see "Saved," "Waitress," "Knocked Up" and "Juno") says a lot about our national psyche.

Where are the movies about American Otilias? And where are the movies about the women whose paths lie in between these two extremes — who may be legally able to do whatever they want with their bodies but feel pressure from parents, boyfriends, employers, communities and the religious right, pressure that limits their freedom to choose? In today's climate, it's hard to imagine a movie that honors these women, a movie that treats abortion as neither a mortal danger nor a tossed-out option on the road to babyland.

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  • invalid-0

    great points! meanwhile, it was very nice to see these 2 films about issues of reproductive choice ranked high on critics’ lists – but i wonder why “4 months, 3 weeks” has been completely shut out of the Oscars while “Juno” was showered with nominations? (http://weblogs.variety.com/thompsononhollywood/2008/01/oscar-shuns-4-m.html) hmmm….

    • invalid-0

      When it comes to movies, Americans don’t like sad, gritty, realistic movies that deal with real life. As a society, we want sappy, escapist, hack-mass-produced pap that entertains, not necessarily enlightens. And while “Juno” appears to be an unrealistic depiction of teen preganancy (I haven’t seen it – just based on what I’ve read about the movie), that’s the kind of thing our nation sadly eats up. They don’t want to hear that too many teen moms are: losers who wind up on welfare, in the streets, often abandoning their babies/losing their parental rights because they can’t do the job because they’re too young and ill-prepared emotionally and intellectually; having grandchildren before age 30; because as much as society glorifies motherhood as an ideal career for all women, we do NOTHING to educate and prepare people for the enormous task of parenthood. Too often, movies and TV shows fail to stress that parenthood is a lifetime commitment, not a game-show.

      • invalid-0

        Good point, anonymous. Society really doesn’t have a realistic view of parenthood. But you could have made that same point equally well without bashing teenaged mothers.

        As for Juno, it was an excellent film, but not so much for how it portrayed the pregnancy. It was a relief to finally have an intelligent, funny teenaged female character for once!