Every year or so, a Cinderella movie leaps into the ultimate Hollywood A-list — the Academy Award nominees for best picture.
The sleeper this time around was "Juno," the sweet but edgy story of Juno MacGuff, a geeky teen who gets pregnant after a sort-of-bored sexual encounter with a friend. The movie also drew Oscar nominations for Canadian Ellen Page, 20, as best actress, for director Jason Reitman, 30, and former stripper turned screenwriter Diablo Cody, 29.
Now it's time for the winner-take-all round of campaigning, which often includes behind-the-scenes maneuvers in the tradition of Niccolo Machiavelli. Do not be surprised if rival studios try to hurt "Juno" by circulating shocking rumors that many religious conservatives who oppose abortion have praised this movie.
It helps that the rumors are true.
Take former Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, for example.
He has listed "Juno" among recent hits — including "Knocked Up" and "Waitress" — that suggest American popular culture is "awaking to the reality of life in the womb."
While these films come from the heart of the "bawdy mainstream," they include images and themes that will surprise traditionalists, argued Santorum, in an essay written as a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
"Ultrasound images awakened characters and audiences to the humanity of the unborn. Having a baby, even in the most challenging circumstances, became the compelling 'choice,' " noted Santorum, a devout Catholic and author of the book "It Takes a Family," written during his unsuccessful 2006 bid to stay in the U.S. Senate.
"Adoption was held up as a positive alternative to abortion. And, unlike the news media's portrayal of pro-lifers, protesters outside abortion clinics were authentically depicted as warm and concerned. This stood in contrast to the indifference of the staff within."
In a pivotal scene, Juno calls the "Women Now" clinic — a parent's signature is not required — and bluntly tells the switchboard operator she needs to "procure a hasty abortion." But when she approaches the facility, Juno discovers that a high school friend is staging a solo protest outside.
This scene is played for nervous laughs, with the Asian girl chanting, "All babies want to get borned!" But when she realizes that Juno is headed inside, the friend urgently adds, "Your baby has a beating heart! Your baby can feel pain! Your baby has fingernails!"
This last line sticks and, in the waiting room, Juno is haunted by the sound of the other patients around her tapping, clicking and chewing their fingernails. As she flees the clinic, her friend calls out, "God appreciates your miracle!" The pregnant teen chooses — with strong support from her loving father and stepmother — to endure the public ordeal of her pregnancy, surrender the baby through adoption and then move on with her life.
The key is that "Juno" is about people struggling to make real decisions in the real world, according to screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi of Act One, a group that trains Christians to work in the Hollywood mainstream. This isn't a connect-the-dots sermon targeting true believers. The movie doesn't preach, because it wasn't created by preachers.
But "Juno" can be called "pro-life, in the way that just about every Gen-X movie about pregnancy is pro-life," wrote the former Catholic nun, at her "Church of the Masses" website. "I would say 'Juno' is a cultural message movie without being a political one. Certainly, that will be an inscrutable nuance in contemporary Christendom in which almost everything is politics. …
"The movie is also anti-divorce in the way that just about every Gen-X movie about family is anti-divorce. And people with faith are here too, in a decent and gritty way that shows mere secularism to be selfish and shallow."
The bottom line, said Santorum, is that a mainstream movie like "Juno" has a chance to connect with mainstream audiences. Secular critics have, so far, even responded with "thumbs up" reviews.
The most hopeful possibility, he added, is that these movies symbolize a kind of power shift as one Hollywood generation is exposed to the hopes and fears of the next.
"They are… chronicles from the children of our divorce — and abortion-oriented culture," Santorum added. "There is lived experience, emotional understanding, hard-earned authenticity at the heart of these scripts. And pain."