No Concessions: “Juno”
Ellen Page, welcome to the show. In Juno, the Canadian actress portrays high schooler Juno MacGuff, who gets knocked up after a sexual encounter with her crush and best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Arrested Development‘s Michael Cera). After realizing that she is — as she puts it — “for shizz up the spout,” Juno decides to bring the child to term and give it to a seemingly perfect couple, played by Jason Bateman (also from Arrested Development) and a surprisingly great Jennifer Garner.
At first glance Juno seems like a rather conventional teen movie, but thanks to screenwriter Diablo Cody’s sharp writing, Jason Reitman’s steady direction, and great performances by all of the actors involved, it manages to transcend the teen genre’s clichÃ©s and deliver a story that is at once original, thoughtful, and completely, utterly human.
Most of the credit should go to Cody and Page. Cody, who went from stripper to blogger to published author to screenwriter in just under three years, proves herself to be a brilliant wordsmith. In one scene, where Juno’s belly is bursting with pregnancy, she declares herself to be the “cautionary whale” around school. Cody hits a few false notes at the beginning of the film by overwriting, particularly the scene at a convenience store featuring a too-cheeky-by-half Rainn Wilson (The Office), where the dialogue feels forced. But once she gets to the meat of the story she tones down the hipper-than-thou attitude, and the characters stop feeling like caricatures and more like real people. As the movie progresses, whatever initial misgivings you have are swept away by the charming actors and heartfelt ending.
For all of its originality, Cody’s screenplay would feel insincere in the hands of lesser actors. Enter Page, who is deservedly receiving Oscar buzz for her turn as the irrepressible, spunky 16-year-old with a bun in the oven. Page’s Juno is, like most teenagers, a walking contradiction: She’s obviously a smart kid, yet she winds up in a tricky situation by getting pregnant. She’s incredibly self-aware, but she “doesn’t really know what kind of girl she is.” And she’s mature enough to know she’s too immature to raise her child herself.
Page’s performance is pitch-perfect. For all of Juno’s bravado, she’s still a scared kid who has a lot to learn about life, and Page is smart enough to show us that as we get closer to the end credits.
Although Page is the main draw, the supporting actors are also superb, as Reitman, whose first feature was last year’s Thank You for Smoking, has once again assembled an all-star cast to bring his screwball aesthetic to life. J.K. Simmons, the hilariously over-the-top J. Jonah Jameson from the Spider-Man franchise, eases back on the throttle and plays Juno’s temperate meat-and-potatoes father, while Allison Janney (The West Wing) is Juno’s stepmother, Brenda. Both actors give the film a much needed dose of pragmatism and act as a perfect counterweight to the main character.
Bateman and Garner, as the would-be adoptive parents, are equally good. Bateman plays an aging musician who forms an unexpected bond with Juno, while Garner, an actress with a tendency to play strong female characters, delivers a surprising performance as a woman aching to be a mother. She’s so desperate to start a family of her own you can’t help but admire her passion while at the same time feeling sorry for her.
Cera plays the same role he always has: a sweet but confused young man. A smarter actor than his typecasting would seem to indicate, Cera manages to find the nuances in his characters that other actors would probably miss. He has a bright future, and he delivers the best line in the movie.
Last but certainly not least, Olivia Thirlby crackles with gleeful energy as Juno’s best friend, Leah. She’s probably the best-written character in Juno, and Thirlby brings her alive with great enthusiasm.
Working with this embarrassment of riches, Reitman’s sophomore effort is an improvement over the amusing Thank You for Smoking. That film featured another smart, charismatic, fast-talking protagonist, but the difference here is that Reitman, for the most part, reins in the dialogue. Juno could’ve been too smart and too precious for its own good, but the director shows a steady hand and proves he’s learned from the missteps of his debut. For one thing, in Thank You he felt the need to pass moral judgment on his decidedly amoral lead character, a spin doctor for the tobacco industry, but in Juno he avoids social commentary on whether or not Juno is doing the right thing. Her decision to “procure a hasty abortion” and her subsequent decision to carry the baby to term are dealt with in a very matter-of-fact manner. If the movie has anything to say about the issue, it’s that every situation is unique and we should mind our own business, as exemplified by the scene where Brenda stands up to the disapproving ultrasound technician who is examining her stepdaughter.
Ultimately, Juno is quite deserving of all the accolades being heaped upon it. Every once in a while a film comes along that instantly establishes relative newcomers and makes you beg for more. For Reitman, Thirlby, Cera, and especially Page and Cody, Juno is that film, but it also gives polished vets Bateman, Garner, Simmons, and Janney a chance to shine. Here’s hoping none of them leave us begging for too long.