Jason Reitman and the Cactus-Gram of Abandonment


Oh, and she inexplicably mails me a cactus every Valentine’s Day. And I’m like, “Thanks a heap coyote ugly. This cactus-gram stings even worse than your abandonment.”

It’s easy to forget about Juno McGuff’s mother, because, frankly, who needs her? When you’ve got JK Simmons for a dad and Alison Janney for a stepmom, you probably don’t spend your days pining for your mysterious biological mother.

But when Juno falls pregnant at 16, the issue of abandonment rises again. She seems have three (or three and a half) options: keep the baby, have an abortion, or give it up for adoption (closed or open). Juno, who has, I think it’s fair to assume, been affected in some way by the early abandonment of her mother, chooses to see out the pregnancy, before completing an “old testament” closed-style adoption.

After that, the bulk of the film deals with teen pregnancy via snappy Diablo Cody dialogue and Ellen Page’s ever expanding “cautionary whale” physique. The issue of abandonment is pretty much shelved.

When, at the end of the film, Juno gives the baby up to Vanessa, consigning herself to a role in the child’s genetic code and little else, she still manages to make it the antithesis of abandonment. In fact, that has been Juno’s problem throughout: her involvement (or over-involvement) with Mark exposes the cracks in the Lorings relationship, and her final act to Vanessa forges a deep and indelible link between the women. Though Juno says she’s intending to “squeeze it on out and hand it over”, that would’ve run too close to the abandonment she experienced from her mother. Instead, she chooses to have an active role in creating the best possible circumstances for her and Vanessa’s child.

And that battle to deal with issues of abandonment is a recurring theme in Jason Reitman’s films. All of the director’s six films feature abandonment plotlines: from Thank You For Smoking’s Nick Naylor reconnecting with his son Joey, to Up in the Air’s Alex choosing to abandon her lover rather than her family.

Obviously, cinematic drama is driven by conflict, and what conflict is more human than the conflict between people in a relationship, or the conflict between parents and their children? But, at the same time as doing something completely natural, Reitman subverts it. Juno’s father has received custody of their daughter, and rather than creating the clichéd ‘difficult’ relationship between a lone father and his daughter (see the unbearably awkward depiction of this in Twilight for further details), Reitman crafts a pretty awesome father and a pretty awesome stepmom. And, suddenly, the abandonment issues at the heart of the McGuff family become part of the context, rather than the plot. Unlike, for example, Bruce Wayne, Juno doesn’t need to don a cowl, scowl and growl in order to become the best Juno she can possibly be. She just gets on with it.

Eventually, like all life defining issues, it has to rear its head. Juno’s relationship with her mother must, to some extent, inform her decision to abandon neither her child nor Vanessa at the end of the film.

Similarly, the relationship between Ryan and Alex, in Up in the Air, appears to be a no-strings-attached/no-fear-of-abandonment fling, before Ryan discovers that Alex has been married with kids all along. At that point, he finally has to face up to his conflicted issues with both attachment and loneliness. When Ryan confronts her, Alex tells him, “I thought we signed up for the same thing… I thought our relationship was perfectly clear. You are an escape. You’re a break from our normal lives. You’re a parenthesis.”

Ryan has been abandoned, yes, but, more interestingly, Reitman is giving an insight into the mentality that stops on the cusp of abandonment. Alex has the opportunity to run away with Ryan (who is, quite literally, as handsome as George Clooney) but stops just short. Yes, she crosses the line, but she doesn’t abandon her family.

She’s an inversion of Juno’s mom, or Nick Naylor, or Mavis from Young Adult who has abandoned everyone in her life. Alex could be a ‘before’ picture, the snap taken on the day she leaves her children to grown up to be wisecracking teen-moms, but I suspect that she’s the flip side of the coin. Who knows if there’s a Mac McGuff waiting behind the door of her Boston townhouse? All we know is that, at that moment, Alex chooses to remain.

In his most recent film, the critically panned Men, Women and Children, Reitman ties a lot of these threads together. I assume that you probably didn’t see it, but I’m not going to bother explaining the whole plot. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot of abandonment.

Like Alex, the married couple Helen and Don both begin extramarital affairs before eventually agreeing to stop short of abandoning each other, or their teenage son. In another of the film’s many threads, Kent (played by Breaking Bad’s Hank) has been left by his wife and is trying, in vain, to connect with his teenage son. Their relationship is pretty different from that of Juno and Mac, which deteriorates into Kent’s son, Tim, laying on some home truths about the fact that they’ve both been abandoned. Not one of them, as Kent deludes himself, but both of them. It’s Tim, the kid, who understands this and faces up to this, and Kent who can’t quite convince himself of reality.

Despite being, predominantly, a director of comedy, there aren’t many happy families in Jason Reitman’s films. In fact, there aren’t many unatomised families at all. But this isn’t a show of bleakness. Reitman’s parents and children are defiant, offering a vision of ‘abandonment’ where the kids remain well adjusted and the parents still love and treasure the time they spend with them.

The kids are in control. Juno’s Mom, off somewhere down South, is the one who’s missing out on a great relationship, not Juno. Likewise, it is Joey who initiates the rekindling of his relationship with his father in Thank You for Smoking, pwning his mother’s objections by saying: “This California trip seems like a great learning opportunity and a chance for me to get to know my father. But if you think it’s more important to use me to channel your frustration against the man you no longer love, I’ll understand.”

For all the broken families out there, Reitman’s movies are a refreshing antidote to cinema’s general despair at the issue. Thematic abandonment doesn’t have to be depressing as hell, it can also be smart, funny and uplifting, just like the real-life people who endure it.

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