by Marc Glassman
Juno. Jason Reitman, director; Diablo Cody, script. Starring: Ellen Page (Juno MacGuff), Michael Cera (Paulie), Jennifer Garner (Vanessa Loring), Jason Bateman (Mark Loring), J.K. Simmons (Mac MacGuff), Allison Janney (Bren MacGuff)
The Kite Runner. Marc Forster, director. David Benioff, script based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini. Starring: Khalid Abdalla (Amir), Homayoun Ershadi (Baba), Zekiria Ebrahimi (Young Amir), Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada (Young Hassan), Shaun Toub (Rahim Khan), Ali Danesh Bakhtyari (Sohrab), Atossa Leoni (Soraya), Abdul Salam Yusoufazi (Assef), Elham Ehsas (Young Assef), Abdul Qadir Farookh (General Taher)
Tales about teenage pregnancy aren’t supposed to be funny. The young women in such stories tend to be victims of their own desires, or worse, of manipulative males. All they’re supposed to feel is shame—possibly mixed with rage. The only choice left for such sad cases is: should they have an abortion or the unwanted child?
Prepare to have your expectations overturned. Young Juno MacDuff is no victim. As played by the exceptionally talented Canadian actress Ellen Page, Juno is a sassy, supremely confident high school student who planned her own seduction at the somewhat unwitting hands of Paulie, her nerdy best friend and reluctant track star. Certainly, Juno’s pregnancy is unexpected but she handles it very well. A trip to an abortion clinic feels disastrous so Juno — reluctant to end a life in any case — decides to have the baby and tell her parents.
It’s at this point that Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s comedy truly takes off. Juno calmly explains the outrageous truth to her blue-collar father, Mac, and stepmother Bren and they react with calm, wit and reasonable advice. There’s no recriminations. Mac is stunned that Paulie is the father — “didn’t think he had it in him”— and Bren is supportive of Juno’s choice to have the child. Afterward, Mac and Bren seem happy that at least Juno hasn’t quit school or gotten heavily into drugs.
Foiling the norm at every turn, the witty script allows Juno, her parents and friends almost too many opportunities to hit the audience with playful one-liners about high school, sex, friendship and love. Scriptwriter Diablo Cody, whose real name is Brooke Busey-Hunt, is a twenty-something journalist and ex-stripper. No doubt she relished the opportunity to create a modern day rebel and heroine, someone who won’t allow anyone to take charge of her life. With a script laden with dialogue, Cody and Reitman were fortunate to find Page, who could handle the almost overly perceptive language and make the character come alive.
If the film drags at all, it’s in the middle section when Juno develops a friendship with the Lorings, the purportedly perfect parents for her child. Of course, life in suburbia is never that good, especially in movies, so it is hardly surprising when the happily married Mike, a disappointed former rock guitarist, becomes very interested in Juno. Luckily, even that melodramatic plot device is handled in an appropriately clever manner.
This delightful, and no doubt controversial, comedy is so good that it would be nice to claim it as Canadian. This country could use a comic hit, couldn’t it? But despite the presence of Ellen Page, Michael Cera and Jason Reitman—Canadians all—as significant contributors to Juno, it must be acknowledged that the film’s script and financing come from Americans. Too bad. Perhaps we can record an assist on this winner of a film.
The Kite Runner
With Afghanistan in the news constantly since 9/11, it makes sense that novels and films about that tragic country and its people would hit mainstream North American culture. Afghani-American Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner was the beneficiary of that interest—deservedly—and went on to become a #1 bestseller in 2003. The book has been translated into 40 languages and been praised by publications as diverse as People magazine (“extraordinary”) and Newsday (“unforgettable”) to the Chicago Tribune (“evocative”) and the New York Times (“a story of fierce cruelty and fierce yet redeeming love.”) Perhaps the most cogent review came from the Washington Post, which called it “a powerful book…no frills, no nonsense, just hard, spare prose…”
Now, Marc Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, has made a film version of the book and while it lacks the taut edgy quality of Hosseini’s prose, his faithful adaptation has already landed the movie in hot water. The Kite Runner’s heart-rending storyline revolves around two homosexual rapes that take place over a couple of generations. While the actual rapes are only hinted at in the film, the Afghani boys who played in Forster’s movie have actually been moved out of their own country for fear of reprisals from devout Muslims—and even members of their own families.
Such is the power of cinema, particularly in regions of the world where the distinction between reality and fiction is far more blurred than it is in Canada.
One wishes that Forster’s version of Hosseini’s novel would have packed that kind of wallop for North American audiences. Unfortunately it doesn’t, despite some terrific performances, particularly by Homayoun Ershadi as the author Amir’s Baba (or Father), Zekiria Ebrahimi as the young Amir and Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada as the young Hassan.
The story is worth recounting. Amir, an Afghani-American novelist is persuaded to return to his native country by his father’s oldest friend Rahim Khan. Rahim wants him to save Sohrab, the son of Hassan, who had been Amir’s childhood friend and servant. The friendship between the two boys had been destroyed when Amir saw—but didn’t prevent—Hassan’s rape at the hands of the young bully Assef. Shamed, Amir had manipulated Hassan and his father Ali to leave the warm family structure, dominated by his brilliant secular Muslim Baba.
Soon after, the peaceful progressive Kabul of Amir’s youth was destroyed by the invasion of the Soviets. Amir and his Baba immigrated to California while Hassan and Ali were left to fend for themselves during the Soviet War and the ensuing civil strife between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Now, Ali, Hassan and his wife are dead and their son has been left an orphan.
Entering Afghanistan, Amir is confronted with ghosts of his past sins and those of his father. He ends up in a deadly fight to save Sohrab from members of the Taliban, who have among them a certain bully from his past.
Melodramatic? Of course. In the novel, the plot counts less than the evocation of Afghanistan in its glory days when young lads could engage in the lovely sport of kite flying. While Forster attempts to repeat the feel of the novel, the story—and his style—end up emphasizing the old-fashioned, highly sentimental, aspects of the work. The Kite Runner is a great book, well worth reading. As a film, it’s less persuasive.