Director : Jason Reitman
Screenplay : Diablo Cody
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Ellen Page (Juno MacGuff), Michael Cera (Paulie Bleeker), Jennifer Garner (Vanessa Loring), Jason Bateman (Mark Loring), Olivia Thirlby (Leah), J.K. Simmons (Mac MacGuff), Allison Janney (Bren), Rainn Wilson (Rollo), Lucas MacFadden (Chemistry Teacher)
In Juno, a beautifully cracked comedy about teen pregnancy, director Jason Reitman gets exactly right what he mostly failed to do in his directorial debut, the acerbic political satire Thank You for Smoking (2005): the interlacing of the hilarious and the humane. Juno is certainly funny, with most of its laughs deriving from either comic exaggerations of everyday behavior or our heroine's wonderfully unflappable and usually sarcastic responses to said behaviors. Yet, the film is also surprisingly warm and sweet when it could have just been snarky; its veneer of hipper-than-thou irony ultimately fails to mask its heart. Unlike Little Miss Sunshine (2006), the overrated indie-comedy smash hit with which it will inevitably be compared ad nauseum, the quirks in Juno feel lived in, rather than imposed from above.
The title character, whose name derives from the wife of Zeus, not the town in Alaska, is played in what can only be called a star-making turn by Ellen Page, who was so memorable as the preternaturally determined underage vigilante in Hard Candy (2005). For every bit of hardness she evinced there, here she plays a girl of great softness who is excellent at putting up a front of edgy confidence. Page plays the 16-year-old Juno in that sneaky crevice between assured self-awareness and complete adolescent confusion. When her well-meaning father (J.K. Simmons) tells her he thought she was “the kind of girl who knew when to say when,” her response “I don't really know what kind of girl I am” is a crucial point in which she lets down her defenses and allows us to see the scared kid inside.
And why shouldn't she be scared? Pregnant at 16, she decides to keep the baby and give it away to a loving family. At the behest of her friend (Olivia Thirlby), Juno scours the Penny Saver and finds what seems to be an appropriately loving, well-to-do young couple named Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), who have been unable to conceive and want to adopt. They are as tidy, wealthy, and proper as Juno is sloppy, blue collar, and sarcastic, but somehow it works ... sort of. As Juno gets to know the Lorings, she begins to see that they also live behind a façade, with the controlling and determined Vanessa pushing her vaguely irresponsible husband into a life of maturity and conformity with which he is not entirely comfortable. As it often turns out, chronological age doesn't always mean you're a grown-up.
The most refreshing thing about Juno, though, is its studious lack of Messages. This is, after all, a film about teenage sex and pregnancy that features a scene in which Juno goes to a clinic to get an abortion. She ultimately decides against this route, not for the moral reasons generally associated with keeping one's baby (which are simultaneously parodied and reinforced by a goofy fellow student protesting outside the building), but for reasons that make more sense in Juno's mind. Her decision to take the pregnancy to term and give the baby away for adoption is not hamstrung by political posturing, but is rather understood through the characters. It is exactly what we would expect someone like Juno to do. Similarly, her father and stepmother (Allison Janney) react understandably to the news that their teen daughter is pregnant: They're disappointed, but ultimately supportive, all of which is tweaked with the film's delightfully biting sense of humor (after Juno leaves the room, they debate which teen dilemma would have been better than pregnancy: a DUI or being into hard drugs).
The film's lack of soapbox grandstanding also extends to Juno's relationship with the child's father, a gangly, insecure kid named Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). Much like his performance in this summer's Superbad, Cera embodies male teenagerdom in all its awkward glory while also suggesting a fundamental core of decency. Everyone is surprised that a kid like Bleeker “had it in him” to get Juno pregnant, and at all points he strives to do “the right thing” even though he has no idea what that might be. For all the quirkiness of his character, Bleeker is, like Juno, a completely believable and sympathetic character because we sense the struggle inside--that desire to do right in a hard situation.
Ultimately, then, Juno is the best kind of comedy: one that makes you laugh, but not at the expense of your emotions. It exaggerates, but without turning its characters into cartoons, and it jabs without ever inflicting serious injury. Like its title character, the film is really all heart with a thin veneer of sarcastic self-awareness; it jokes about serious things, but still takes them seriously. In some ways it reminded me of the best early works of Woody Allen (who is name-dropped at one point), who was such a master of finding that place in life's myriad problems where all we can do is laugh, lest we start crying. Juno finds that place.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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