Performance Review

I Was Born to Be a Mother: Jennifer Garner and Juno

As Juno turns 15, Yasmin Omar explores how the actor's perfectly pitched turn as an adoptive mother helped to define her career

In Performance Review, writers go deep on the performances that continue to obsess or fascinate them years after a film’s release. As Juno celebrates its 15th anniversary, Yasmin Omar argues that Jennifer Garner’s underappreciated work is the film's emotional centre

There is much to recommend about Juno, the quirky coming-of-age comedy about a pregnant high-schooler, which premiered 15 years ago and has since gained a cult following. Perhaps you love its catchy indie-folk soundtrack that every hipster-adjacent teenager had on CD in the Noughties. Or Elliot Page’s charismatic performance as the titular smart-talking 16-year-old. Or the quippy, generation-shaping dialogue of Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning script (“That ain't no Etch-A-Sketch. This is one doodle that can't be undid, Homeskillet”). Peel back the layers of hyperstylisation, though, and you’ll find the emotional centre of Juno is Jennifer Garner. She plays Vanessa, a warmhearted thirtysomething who, in her own words, “has always wanted to be a mother.”

We are first introduced to Vanessa with a 10-second montage that tells you everything you need to know about her character. Dressed in a black jumper, white shirt and gold cufflinks, she organises her immaculately appointed home ahead of her first meeting with Juno and the girl’s father Mac (a gruffly charming J.K. Simmons). In this tightly shot sequence, she arranges flowers in a vase; dusts a bannister; lines up glass picture frames and monogrammed towels; and fans out magazines (with the appropriately homely titles Parenting, Traditional Home and Family Circle). She hasn’t uttered a word and yet we already know that Vanessa is orderly, meticulous and family-oriented. She cares about how she is perceived and wants to make a good impression on who could be, all going to plan, the biological mother of her child.

Garner’s strength as a performer is her open-faced sincerity, which she showcases in her first scene. She precisely telegraphs Vanessa’s nerves, smothering awkward little coughs, fidgeting in her seat and keeping her hands in perpetual, uneasy motion. There’s a self-consciousness to the way she quietly offers her guests vitamin-infused beverages before trailing off into silence, a barely concealed desperation in her voice when she says “I wanna be a mommy so badly”. Unlike Juno’s other characters – who speak in pop-culture references and idiosyncratic, made-up slang – Vanessa talks plainly and softly, allowing Garner to ground the movie’s more serious moments and hit the required emotional beats (such is the case when she subtly communicates Vanessa’s tragic backstory with the dip of a chin and a faraway look when Juno jibes her about not carrying the baby herself). Garner is saddled with the unglamorous “straight man” role, and must play the foil to her joke-cracking scene partners, furrowing her eyebrows and rolling her eyes at their quips. She encourages other people to shine, which, ingeniously, seems to foreshadow Vanessa’s selfless parenting style.

Her twitching discomfort during this sequence gradually melts away as she tells Juno about her desire to start a family. With clear-voiced passion, she states: “Have you ever felt like you were just born to do something? I was born to be a mother. Some of us are.” Her enthusiastic delivery is made all the more powerful since it directly juxtaposes with the apathetic line readings of Jason Bateman, dragging his feet on fatherhood as Vanessa’s slacker husband Mark. When Vanessa finds out that Juno is serious about giving them her baby, Garner lets her dimpled smile spread out across her entire face and clasps her hands together in joyful prayer. It is incredibly touching, showing how Vanessa lights up at the idea of fulfilling her dream.

The same can be said of a later scene at a shopping centre, when Juno spies Vanessa gleefully playing peek-a-boo with a little girl in the children’s play area. The soon-to-be mothers then bump into each other on the concourse, and Juno invites Vanessa to feel the baby kicking. Kneeling down, Garner gently takes Page’s bump in her hands and, with some uncertainty, deepens her voice to speak with her unborn child (presumably to establish authority at this early developmental stage). There is such a softness in her expression as she coaxes the baby into moving for her, followed by this heart-swelling, eye-popping wonder as soon as it does – she breathes in sharply and beams up at Juno, inviting her to share in this magical moment. Such understated, earnest acting elevates what could have easily been a much snarkier film, and also reveals Garner’s immense skill at channelling the emotions of motherhood.

What is particularly noteworthy about Juno is that it marks a turning point in her career; before it came out in 2007, Garner routinely played sexy characters. Who could forget her part as the confident seductress in 2002’s Catch Me If You Can, taking wads of cash out of her bra and tossing playing cards at Leonardo DiCaprio’s cheque-forging naïf? In the early 2000s, Garner was best known for top-billing the ABC thriller Alias, on which she starred as the alluring spy Sydney Bristow, who isn’t above using her feminine wiles to get what she wants. The character, explains a recent Refinery29 article, was a “kind of a secret agent Barbie so hot that it was almost alarming.” For the role, Garner would wear a revolving wardrobe of pulse-racing outfits: lacy lingerie, Latex skintight minidresses, low-cut corsets the list goes on.

Since Juno, though, she has almost exclusively played mothers. She was the overprotective mother concerned about her daughter’s online behaviour in 2014’s Men, Women & Children (directed by Juno’s Jason Reitman); the supportive mother her son comes out to in the gay-teen drama Love, Simon (2018); the laissez-faire mother who indulges her kids’ every whim in Yes Day (2021). Hell, she even had a cameo in Garry Marshall’s Mother’s Day (2016).

In a 2017 BuzzFeed essay, the culture writer Anne Helen Petersen argued that Jennifer Garner “has turned her model of maternity into the backbone of her brand,” an assertion that has been borne out not only by her choice of projects, but also her social-media presence. Scroll her Instagram and you’ll find wholesome mommy-blogger content, from reels of her packing her children’s lunchboxes to feeding babies. Nowadays, Jennifer Garner performs motherhood both on and off screen, and it’s largely thanks to her role in Juno. So convincing was her portrayal of this compassionate mother that audiences could no longer conceive of her in any other way. If that’s not a career-defining performance, I don’t know what is.

Yasmin Omar is a London-based film critic; she edits the Curzon Journal.

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