Friday, February 1, 2008

The little movie that could

Every year, it seems, we’re entranced by a movie that comes from out of nowhere to outpoint all the biggies Hollywood is known for. Films from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Napoleon Dynamite,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” to “Little Miss Sunshine” — made for the equivalent of catering budgets for the blockbusters— emerge to capture hearts, minds and box office in ways nobody saw coming.

This year’s phenom is “Juno,” a film whose buzz has been building for weeks. Since its release on Dec. 5, the film has gone on to huge things: four Oscar nominations for best picture; best director (Jason Reitman, Ivan’s sprout and a talent very much in his own right); best original screenplay (for the blazingly original writer Diablo Cody); and best actress for Ellen Page, the 21-year-old Canadian actress who stars in the title role (pictured below, out of character). With high scores from Rotten Tomatoes, and high praise from such film critics Roger Ebert and others, “Juno” is the recipient of building talk of an upset win at the Oscars this month.

The story’s simple enough: A frighteningly intelligent teenage girl gets pregnant and investigates her options — Open adoption? Abortion? Keeping the child? -- in the nine months it takes nature to take its course. Cody probably pitched it in five minutes flat.


But what unfolds is a startlingly affecting story that smartly explores issues of life, love, fidelity, family and what bonds (and separates) two people under the most trying circumstances. With dialogue that sparkles and three-dimensional characters we come to care about, "Juno" has become a box-office darling. Made for $7.5 million and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, the film reportedly earned back its cost in three weeks, going on to gross more than $102 million.

“Juno” has generated buzz beyond itself. Some people have clucked that the film -- and the popularity of films like “Knocked Up” and “Waitress” -- promotes teen pregnancy, pointing to a trend in unwed teenage expectancy evidenced by last month's announcement that Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney’s sister, was preggers; and by a December report by the National Center for Health Statistics that found the birth rate for U.S. teenagers jumped last year, sharply reversing a trend that had held for years.

The birth rate rose by 3 percent between 2005 and 2006 among 15-to-19-year-old girls, after declining 34 percent between 1991 and 2005, according to the center, an arm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

(Coincidence Dept.: The Oscar nominations were announced on Jan. 22, the 35th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision giving women access to legal abortions.)

Another storyline has also emerged for big business. The tic-tac candy/breath mint, popular with teenagers, figures prominently in the “Juno” plot as the favorite treat of Paulie Bleeker (played by Michael Cera of “Superbad” fame), the father of Juno’s child.

But in the wake of “Juno’s” success, what would seem to be a gold mine of free media for Ferrero USA, the U.S. division of tic-tac’s parent company, has gone pretty much unexplored. As of today, the homepage of the tic-tac Web site hasn’t even posted a mention of “Juno” and the presence of a high-profile product placement in a film many have called the best of the year.

“Not since “My Big Fat Greek” and the Michael Considine obsession with Windex, has a major American product placement (non-paid, I am told) been featured so 'cool-y' in a major motion picture,” reports the Punk Marketing blog.

“Apparently, tic-tac's parent company, Ferrero … is not taking advantage of the free promo,” notes the QuickWit blog. “Is this a case of slow-updating or could they be avoiding the association with a movie, slightly controversial for its depiction of teen pregnancy? With Oprah Winfrey ‘ordering' her viewers to go to the 'movie to see this year' you'd think Fererro would be all over it. Free product placement in an Oprah-endorsed movie!!?? Could you ask for a better marketing opportunity?”

All of which misses, or at least obscures, the larger point: “Juno” is the latest sign of a seismic shift underway in Hollywood, a gathering plurality of writers, directors and stars that make a powerful impact without a gun or blue screen in sight. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s just that moviegoers are screaming to hear other, unsung voices in film.

Whatever, the success of “Juno” — along with that of a raft of recent films exploring alternate lives and lifestyles (“Capote,” “Crash,” “Transamerica,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Superbad”) -- indicates a willingness by a traditionally risk-averse industry to push the envelope on its own tolerance, and that of moviegoers everywhere. That’s a hugely important social phenomenon, and one that hopefully we won’t see the end of any time soon.

Gobbling tic-tacs will never be the same.
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Image credit: Poster © 2007 Fox Searchlight Pictures. Ellen Page: Lukeford.net, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license > Wikipedia

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