An abridged version of this review was originally published in Risen Magazine.
Knocked Up, Waitress, Bella, and the internationally celebrated “masterpiece” 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days… yes, 2007 is officially The Year of the Unexpected Pregnancy.
And now, here comes Jason Reitman’s Juno, a comedy about a high-school girl whose sexual experimentation has left her pregnant and confused.
What’s going on? Is Juno just another movie in this unlikely trend?
Not hardly. Juno is a charming, hilarious, personality-packed picture based on a screenplay by professional-stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody. Fueled by a knockout lead performance by Ellen Page (who is easily the best thing to emerge from that catastrophe called X-Men 3: The Final Stand) and a cast of strong personalities, it’s this year’s “Little Movie That Could.” And it is another bold step forward in Reitman’s career, whose Thank You for Smoking proved that he had inherited his father Ivan’s knack for moviemaking.
Juno MacGuff’s got problems, and she knows it. She’s not sure how she feels about the father of her baby — a softspoken track star named Paulie (Michael Cera). Her conscience is wide awake, so abortion isn’t an option. (She can’t live with the idea of killing anything that has already grown fingernails.) So she’s searching for an ideal family to adopt her little “sea monkey.”
She finds Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, perfectly cast), who seem cool enough. But the more she spends time with them, the more she — and the audience — begin to wonder if the Lorings really have what it takes to be parents… or spouses, for that matter.
And so, as the countdown to delivery day begins, we watch Juno wrestle with the realities of being huge, scorned, and committed to surrendering her baby. We watch her family cope with her pregnancy and learn to support her. And we watch the Lorings’ relationship tested as reality hits home.
This all sounds pretty heavy. Fortunately, Page’s feisty line delivery and hipster cool are irresistible. And Cody’s smart dialogue invests Juno with such a volatile spontanaeity that every scene seem fresh and unpredictable.
In fact, sometimes the words she puts in Juno’s mouth, amplified by Page’s idiosyncratic performance, come off as just a little too smart. The more time we spend with this girl, the more implausible she seems. Juno’s a firecracker, no doubt about it — but she’s such a firecracker that sparks and pops and never quits, so that the rest of the fireworks just kind of stand around and watch, only sparking occasionally themselves. Juno’s personality dominates the movie, which is both the best and worst thing about it. After a while, viewers might be thinking, ‘Okay, okay, we know she’s hip. Does she ever shut up?’
It’s too bad that the excellent supporting cast doesn’t get more room to maneuver, because their characters are just as interesting and endearing.
J.K. Simmons, one of the best character actors working today, develops one of his best characters so far as Mr. MacGuff, a gruff but loving father (a rare breed on the big-screen these days). As Juno’s stepmom, Allison Janney finally gets a feature-film role to make us forget how she was confined to playing a zombie-like wife in American Beauty. And Michael Cera’s performance will become a favorite for many viewers. As the uber-sensitive track star who fathered Juno’s baby, he creates a loveable fool who knows more about loving a woman faithfully and truly than most grown men ever understand.
Still, the movie avoids so many common stumbles, it’s almost miraculous. Somehow, the whole affair avoids stooping to any crowdpleasing crassness and sophomoric indulgence. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Knocked Up.) And Cody’s writing is so compassionate, there isn’t a single villain in sight. Everyone is mixed up, everyone has moments of wisdom, and everyone grows and matures along the way.
Hopefully Juno will be embraced for its virtues, and not exploited as representing either side of the abortion debate. It’s too complicated to be paraphrased, or presented as a morality tale. These characters face many painful challenges, and as they think them through, they make choices that are sometimes admirable and sometimes dismaying. Some of the wise decisions lead to trouble, some of the foolish decisions lead to blessing. In that way, Juno dangerously resembles real life. And wouldn’t it be a good thing if more movies were like that?
(The fact that her family calls her “Junebug” may put viewers in mind of another recent movie about a pregnant woman and the need for compassion and courage in family relationships. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Phil Morrison’s minor miracle of a film… 2005′s Junebug. )
There’s a tenderness, a compassion, and a fulness to this story that is rare in comedies about teens, or sex, or parenthood. Thus, surrounded by variations on the theme, Juno stands out a step in the right direction when it comes to movies about immaturity, consequences, and growth.