Of all the different film genres and styles, I think that movies like Juno are the ones I cherish most. As with Little Miss Sunshine or Garden State, this is a comedy about people who feel real in situations that seem authentic. It’s the kind of comedy where the humor comes not so much from fabricated situations but from a place of truth. The film understands people like the ones it is portraying, and there is a keen sense of human observation going on. Comedies often get the shaft come awards time, yet Juno is proof that a comedy can be just as insightful and “deep” as the most hard-hitting drama.
Ellen Page (Hard Candy, X-Men: The Last Stand) plays the title character, a 16-year old misfit who, in an alleged fit of boredom, has sex with her sort-of-but-not-quite boyfriend Bleek (Superbad’s Michael Cera). This spontaneous loss of virginity results in an unplanned pregnancy. Juno decides she must tell her father (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Alison Janney). They take the news okay, but Juno is thrown by their suggestion that she’s “sexually active.” How can I be sexually active, she wonders, when I did it so passively?
A trip to an abortion clinic sours Juno on that option, so she makes an adoption plan with a childless couple, Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). They express a willingness to be open in the adoption, although Juno would rather just “pop the thing out” and be done with it. She does find a connection with the couple, though. Juno likes Vanessa and wants to make her dream (bordering on obsession) of being a parent come true. And in Mark she finds a platonic soul mate – someone who digs rock music and gory horror movies and going against the grain. Juno follows these characters through this situation, with each of them being changed and affected by what happens.
The screenplay was written by Diablo Cody who, as has been much reported, is a former stripper turned scriptwriter. She peppers the dialogue with pop culture references, not as a device to declare her story’s own hipness, but to establish the world of its characters. In spite of her sudden thrust into an adult situation, Juno is still basically a kid and she has a repertoire of kid references. She’s also prone to exclamations such as “shut your gob!” (Which I think will become the catchphrase of 2008.)
What’s amazing is how well Cody knows her creations. The screenplay identifies with Juno’s outsider status, yet also finds empathy for the desperate Vanessa, affection for the cluelessly good-natured Bleek, and respect for Juno’s parents. Then there’s Mark, who is perhaps the most intriguing one in the film. Once a free-wheeling, follow-your-passion type, he now finds most of his life confined to one room in the house that Vanessa allows for his possessions. This is why he gets along so well with Juno; if she’s a kid forced to grow up too fast, he’s an adult who never quite grew up all the way. Well played by an A-list ensemble cast, each and every character feels like someone you know – or would want to know.
The standout, however, is Ellen Page. Although in her early 20’s for real, she convincingly passes for sixteen. Outsiders are hard to play with a fresh angle because they’ve been traditional movie heroes for decades. This is especially true of adolescent outsiders. What Page does that’s so spectacular is to fully embody Juno as a young woman who cares and doesn’t care simultaneously. On one hand, she rejects the populist attitude of her high school and anyone who doesn’t get her cool references or snarky remarks. She projects an air of casual complacency. Yet when the chips are down, she has a very moral center guiding her. Others may not “get” her, but she gets herself, and in her world that’s all that matters. I think this is the best performance by an actress that I’ve seen all year; hopefully the Oscar buzz around Ellen Page will pay off.
Juno was directed by Jason Reitman, who made last year’s, Thank You For Smoking. He finds the exact right pitch for the movie. There are many, many laughs, yet also a lot of heart. And I don’t mean that synthetic “heart” that a lot of Hollywood feel-good pictures try to manufacture. I mean genuine heart. You honestly care about these characters as though there were your friends rather than fictional creations. The story does not go the way you expect it to, which is great, and there’s a beautiful scene between Juno and Bleek near the end that silently speaks all the unspoken things that have been subliminally building throughout.
In Juno, the big screen has found an unlikely heroine. Simple yet complex, tough talking yet tender, she triumphs in her own life by following her instincts and trusting herself when the journey of adolescence has provided no roadmap. She’s a classic character in what is definitely one of my favorite films of the last five years.
( out of four)
Juno is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.
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