Knights in parental armour: On Juno, Schitt's Creek and parents as the secret vigilantes of our lives

·8-min read

The Viewfinder is a fortnightly column by writer and critic Rahul Desai, that looks at films through a personal lens.


A childhood friend and I watched Juno together in early 2008. I instantly fell in love with the film. The red hooded jacket. The SunnyD jug. The rotoscoped opening-title sequence. The furniture on the lawn. A visual narrative of three seasons. Kimya Dawson's whimsical-folksy score. Elliot Page's (formerly Ellen Page) androgynous coolth. Michael Cera's clumsy devotion and the humanisation of the high-school nerd. Even the story behind the film: Diablo Cody's rise from stripper to Oscar-winning screenwriter. As an audience, it almost felt unnerving to see a buoyant portrait of a crisis. I never quite imagined that a teen-pregnancy drama could €" pun unintended €" shun the kid gloves and look so relaxed in its own skin.

But my friend spent the week obsessing about an unheralded aspect of Juno: the parents. Not the 'aspiring parents' played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. He couldn't get over Juno's parents €" the MacGuffs €" and their spookily supportive nature. "That was the only unreal part," he repeated, unable to fathom how a middle-aged, middle-class American couple accepted €" and enabled €" the precocious personality of their pregnant 16-year-old daughter. I sensed where he was coming from. Except for a mild gesture of disappointment during Juno's confession, nothing about them suggested a lapse in trust. In fact, they embraced Juno's decision to give birth and put the baby up for adoption, instinctively counting on her to fix her own mess. That the actors €" JK Simmons and Allison Janney €" would both go on to win Oscars as iconic mentors from hell in Whiplash and I, Tonya only cemented the casual tenderness of their Juno roles.

I also recognised that my friend came from an orthodox business family. He was once given the silent treatment for running up a high phone bill. For him to then see Mac and Bren MacGuff not guilt-trip, disown or punish their child for committing the 'ultimate sin' was a culture shock. On the other hand, the reason I barely noticed the MacGuffs was because they felt like home. Others looked at them as fantasy characters in a fairytale setting. But for me they were an integral part of Juno's world €" by refusing to be her conflict. Their spirited lack of interference defines both Juno the film and the person. I've written a lot about my parents over the years, mostly marinating in the revelations of hindsight. Perhaps it seems fitting that the one thing I took for granted €" and wholly overlooked €" is their unerring faith in me. Their construction of my individualism has been invisible to the naked eye. I can't imagine the number of instances they might have wanted to jump in, protect me and teach me from their own history. But somehow they resisted, choosing to let nature take its course. They invariably opted to cushion my fall rather than prevent the leap.

Juno's father accompanying her to an interview with the adoptive parents reminded me of the time my father pulled off a logistical miracle to ensure I wasn't alone on a crucial morning. It was college admissions day, but he was in another city for business meetings. He took a criminally early cross-country flight to be with me through the intimidating process, before catching an evening flight back to work. This was no emergency. But he sensed that I was unsure about the college at hand €" the long commute home, the cosmopolitan crowd. His physical presence gave me the courage to locate a future that would challenge and supplement me. Like Papa MacGuff at the interview, my father didn't do much at the venue either: he watched me run from pillar to post and navigate the consequences of my own decision.

Juno's stepmom accompanying her to the ultrasound tests and fussing about the technician's attitude reminded me of the many times my mother fought fate to be by my side. Like the day she promptly flew into the city to help me nurse a broken heart. (She wasn't particularly fond of the ex-partner, but there was not one "I told you so"). Or like the day she gatecrashed my summer visit to my grandparents' when she heard I was unwell. Or like the years she patiently paid my rent from her savings so that I could "figure out" my career. She waited and watched, allowing me to accumulate a life fertile enough to adopt the art of writing. It felt like the equivalent of attaching a practise wheel to my awry bicycle without me noticing it.

My parents presumed I knew what I was doing even when I didn't. It is widely believed that a parent's love is unconditional, but this rarely implies that their affection is unobstructive. Even if it is, the "leniency" is hung over the child's head like a sword, as though it were a generous exception to the stifling norm. Among the million reasons I adore Schitt's Creek for, this finer element of the show belongs right up there. Not unlike the titular town that adopts the riches-to-rags family, the parents Johnny and Moira Rose are refreshingly non-judgmental and unrestrictive when it comes to their 'adult children'. David and Alexis, both in their late twenties, are overgrown children at the beginning of the series: narrow, uninitiated and oblivious to responsibility. They are more or less the mental age of Juno. But the senior Roses rarely try to control the two.

They observe €" and amiably support €" David on his quest to explore his sexuality, his purpose, his romance and eventually himself. Moira's face €" enlightened, proud €" comes to mind when Patrick serenades a teary-eyed David with "You're Simply The Best" in public. She stays in the background, but never stops watching her son. The Roses are indulgent bystanders while Alexis fashions her own coming-of-age arc: ambition, love, heartbreak, identity. They accept her flakiness without blinking an eye, and touchingly, Moira surprises Alexis with a choir performance to mark her long-overdue graduation day. One might argue this is the central conceit of the sitcom. After all, the Roses are too busy growing up themselves to interfere in the journeys of David and Alexis. But the empathy the show wears so lightly on its sleeve suggests that the Roses are inherently progressive adults who aid their children by letting them be. Their parenthood is merely delayed, just as the kids' upbringing is, which makes the story all the more humane and endearing.

What this does is free the narrative of life from the stereotypes of external conflict, in turn urging the young protagonists to look within. Juno, David and Alexis make mistakes, meander, whine and rise of their own accord, shepherded by parents who treat them as both adolescents and equals. Most might consider the universe of Juno and Schitt's Creek as utopian €" where youngsters can be whoever they please without inviting the scrutiny of their loved ones €" and therefore perfect as a wish-fulfilment watch. That I found the two stories inextricably linked to the world we live in is then a testament to my personal roots: my parents and their relentless respect for my being.

There's a flipside to this compassionate equation. Once I grew past a certain age, the independence to think my own way also made me create my own conflicts. With no visible villains, it falls upon the individual to find €" and sometimes, invent €" one's own ideology of crisis. The silence triggers a craving for noise. This equipped me with the emotional wherewithal to look back €" and examine my parents, retrospectively discover their defects, lose my rose-tinted glasses. At some point, we stop looking at our parents as nurturers and start seeing them as humans. This often involves judging them. We begin to notice the little ticks: their eating habits, their cultural antiquity, their political arrogance or the way they handle money. They've seen life before we become their life. But once we start seeing life beyond them, we wonder why they didn't show us more.

I can wager that once Juno, David and Alexis get older, they bicker with their parents. They probably see them as problematic people with deep-set biases. Fortunately, the stories end at just the right moment €" on the cusp of complications €" while the parents are still the secret vigilantes of their kids' lives. My disputes with my folks have gotten wider with time. But while I try to loudly figure out why they are the way they are, they simply assume I still know what I'm doing. They listen, read and trust that I will find my peace. They absorb my rage. They note that they're not my heroes anymore, but they also know they're something more than that: my humans.

And for them, I'm still that kid in Class Eight who misread the Social Studies exam timings, reached an hour late and €" despite the giggles and gasps €" snatched my answer sheet to start writing. All along, my father watched from afar. He didn't request the teacher for favours. After the exam, I expected him to scold me. To my delight, he treated me to pizza instead, lauding my calm handling of the crisis. My hero made me feel superhuman. "Character" is the term he used. Characters like the MacGuffs and Roses took years to follow his lead.

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