Juno defies expectations at every turn, giving the slip to anything saccharine or trite or didactic, looking to its characters for insight and complexity, reveling in dialogue that is artificial yet witty and articulate and, most crucially, taking a presumably stale storyline and making it into a buoyant comedy. The film, the second directed by Jason Reitman and first written by professional stripper-turned-writer Diablo Cody, detonates wisecracks every step of the way, yet never completely disguises the fact that this is a comedy from a couple of moralists determined to portray the great human values in love and friendship.
The Fox Searchlight picture, slated for a December release, looks like a feel-good movie for audiences and studio alike. The titular performance by 20-year-old Ellen Page is a breakout sensation that can only further boost the film’s chances this holiday season.
Actually, all performances are sharp, which shows what can happen when actors get to play characters and deliver lines that bristle with originality. Cody certainly knows how to write scenes that move off center as she creates a world of teens, high school and suburban families that looks typical yet is anything but.
Juno MacGuff (Page) is a supersmart, cool 16-year-old (named after Zeus’ wife), whose single experimentation with sex with her best male friend, Paulie (a touching Michael Cera), results in pregnancy. After visiting an abortion clinic “to procure a hasty abortion,” she thinks better of the idea and falls back on Plan B.
She decides to have the baby and place it with a family through private adoption. She finds the perfect couple in the local Penny Saver, right next to exotic pet adoptions. These are Vanessa (Jennifer Grant) and Mark (Jason Bateman). All this legwork comes before reporting her situation and solution, at the urging of best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), to her parents.
That scene is a perfect example of how Cody defies expectations. Juno’s gruff yet kind dad (J.K. Simmons) takes the news with equanimity, even saying of the father-to-be, “I didn’t think he had it in him.” Stepmom Bren (Allison Janney) had rather hoped the bad news with be that Juno was into drugs or expelled but goes to work to support her step daughter with a program of prenatal vitamins.
The thing about Juno is that she is much older than her years and must see to everyone, especially her baby’s new parents. She develops a rapport with Mark through music — he turns out to be a composer of commercial jingles — and horror flicks. “You have the best taste in slasher movies!” she enthuses.
But all is not right in the couple’s relationship. This makes her despair, not only for her baby but for herself in the future. Do all relationships — her mother essentially abandoned her — fizzle and die? She takes another look at Paulie, the boy she left behind who has come to love her.
The dialogue, especially coming from the teens, has a hip eloquence, coining phrases and juxtaposing arresting though sometimes corny images that startle the ear. Juno’s fetus is described as a “sea monkey.” She doesn’t just need to piss but to “pee like Seabiscuit.” She declares everyone at school sees her teen pregnancy as “a cautionary whale.”
This may sound rather coy, but Cody’s dialogue has a definite rhythm and Reitman directs his actors to deliver the words in the rapid-fire precision of a ’30s screwball comedy. Indeed all scenes develop a rhythm and inner logic that bring the movie to often startling revelations and insights.
Page never succumbs to the cuteness such a sassy character might encourage. There is a straightforward honesty and rigorous intellectual curiosity about Juno MacGuff. She may use a cell phone shaped like a hamburger and argue the merits of various popular musical movements, but she is a vulnerable teen underneath all that maturity.
Thirlby and Cera are refreshing in their roles as kids with smarts. When Juno tells Paulie he can be cool without really trying, he admits, in one of the movie’s best lines, that he actually tries very hard.
The Canadian production presents a slightly idealized, maybe a bit stylized suburbia, in which this odd yet endearing triumph of comic smartness can take place.
(This review was written for the 2007 Toronto film festival screening of Juno.)
Mandate Pictures/Mr. Mudd
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Diablo Cody
Producers: Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith, Mason Novick
Executive producers: Joe Drake, Nathan Kahane, Daniel Dubiecki
Director of photography: Eric Steelberg
Production designer: Steven Saklad
Costume designer: Monique Prudhomme
Music: Mateo Messina
Songs by: Kimya Dawson
Editor: Dana Glauberman
Juno: Ellen Page
Paulie: Michael Cera
Mark: Jason Bateman
Vanessa: Jennifer Garner
Leah: Olivia Thirlby
Dad: J.K. Simmons
Bren: Allison Janney
Running time — 95 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13