From where I sit as an obstetrician, the last year was a very interesting one at the movies. Four films about unplanned pregnancy entertained audiences and provoked thoughtful discussion. One of the few benefits of waiting for deliveries during late nights on call is the chance to think. On this score these films were fertile for me in ways beyond topic alone. They are a window into popular culture. "Knocked Up," "Waitress," "Bella" and "Juno" make up this quartet of films. I recommend them in ascending order.
Pregnancy is always fascinating. Filmmakers have treated gestation with humor ("Father of the Bride Part II"), horror ("Rosemary's Baby") and everything in between. During the nine months of pregnancy, there are many interesting storylines. Of course, the important one follows the woman who is carrying the physical burden and doing the hard labor. But there are also fathers, parents, nurses, doctors, and friends who support or annoy. Everyone can see themselves or someone they love in these stories.
"Knocked Up" is the pregnancy genre equivalent of "Dumb & Dumber." In this film crude trumped funny by a long shot.
My hair stood on end while watching "Waitress." Its depiction of a pregnant patient-doctor romance made this doctor cringe. I almost screamed at the screen: "You are stupid and are going to lose your license!" But the patient had far more wisdom than the doctor and ended the affair before everyone's lives blew up.
"Bella," the best-picture award winner at the Toronto Film Festival, was a warmly realistic indie debut made in New York City by Mexican filmmakers. It was the most overtly religious of the four, a characteristic that made it even more true to life. Even film producers have discovered that religion sells, sometimes even better than sex and violence. Millions of Americans with deep religious faith keep responding to well-crafted holistic film art by purchasing tickets.
"Juno" is clearly the gem of the pregnancy films. It is drawing large crowds across America and is a deserved favorite for a number of Academy Awards. Its avoidance of an R rating was a smart decision, because it appeals to all ages. Though the acting and directing are superb, the genius of "Juno" is the story itself.
Art often is a window into the life of the artist. Screenwriters' life experiences can't help but leak into screenplays. Diablo Cody's life story may be unconventional, but the story she tells in "Juno" certainly rings true. It leaves the viewer better for the experience of having seen it.
"Juno" makes it clear with humorous honesty that unplanned pregnancy is not just a cool adventure. Life is complicated and hard. But young pregnant women can have remarkable wisdom and strength. And families can rise to the challenge of supporting a pregnant teen.
We all debate how films end, but these films are distinguished largely by how they start.
The common thread near the beginning of all four is the decision to continue the pregnancy despite acknowledgement of the option of abortion. Some reviewers chalk this up to the simple fact that an ongoing pregnancy just makes for a better story. I think that it reflects the ongoing cultural shift in a life-affirming direction.
Some movies are overt ideological polemics. The subtexts of "Vera Drake" and "The Cider House Rules" are thinly veiled arguments that pregnancy is frequently life-threatening and often requires the tragic choice of abortion. In "Juno," the choice made is not used as propaganda. In the waiting room of the abortion clinic, the decision to continue the pregnancy is driven by the simple realization that the fetus has fingernails.
Over the years I've delivered many unplanned babies, and I know that each story is unique. The primary charm and lesson of these films is that stories of complicated lives can be compelling. They prove to be most compelling when they demonstrate the power of love, and when they celebrate life rather than its interruption.
Steve Calvin is a Minneapolis physician.