Juno (2007) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic material, sexual content and language
Running Time: 92 min.
Cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirlby
Cameo: Cameron Bright
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenplay: Diablo Cody
Review published January 15, 2008
Jason Reitman follows up his sleeper hit Thank You for Smoking with another incisive character-driven comedy, Juno, which falls into the category of small films with fun dialogue and likeably eccentric characters, a la Napoleon Dynamite, Rushmore and Ghost World. The measure of a film like this comes through how much we can identify with the main character, and though her nonconformist views on life and love are radically different than what most would opt for themselves, she makes a certain sense in this uncertain world. Thanks to sharp dialogue and a keen understanding of the characters by screenwriter Diablo Cody (the nom de plume of former stripper/blogger Brook Busey), it all comes to life in a refreshing and easy to digest way that thwarts predictability by being both clever and honest at the same time.
Ellen Page (X-Men: The Last Stand, Hard Candy) stars as 16-year-old Juno MacGuff, who becomes sexually active with her equally geeky virgin friend and classmate Paulie Bleeker (Cera, Superbad), resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. After considering and rejecting the abortion route, she has no choice but to tell her family about the pregnancy and of her plans to give her baby up for adoption to a nearby wealthy couple that cannot have children of their own.
Granted, despite my bestowing compliments as to the honesty of Cody's screenplay, some might claim that the story isn't all that realistic and the characters shallow and idealized. I will concede that the supporting characters aren't exactly fine-tuned to show more than one particular trait, but I would argue that this is Juno's story first and foremost, and being in every scene, perhaps what we see from these characters is a result of how they react to such a precocious, brash and nervy young adult in their presence. Often, teen pregnancy films are dour and spell the end of a young girl's promising future, but in Juno, that's never the case. Juno is very matter-of-fact about the situation, and perhaps her early maturity causes everyone else to consider that she knows what she's doing deep down, even if they don't actually agree with her means or her methods.
Although comparisons to other quirky comedies aimed at teenagers are warranted, I think what's most impressive about this burgeoning mini-genre of comedy is that each one is wholly unique unto itself. While we may find similarities in how we react to these films, the stories and characters we find in the peculiar world they inhabit are completely self-contained. Juno MacGuff may share certain traits with other nerdy, eccentric girls you've seen in films and on TV before, but there isn't quite anyone like her we've followed around for any length of time, which was also true of Napoleon Dynamite. Her unique observations and off-the-cuff reactions to everyday life are what makes the movie fun, and by the end of the film, we have grown to care about this girl who seemingly has an impenetrable shell of oddball defense mechanisms, but underneath it all, she wants what all of us want -- a chance at happiness, fulfillment, and to never let life's wildest curveballs get her down.
With solid casting, especially of Ellen Page in what might be a star-making role, Juno succeeds in being funny, thoughtful, and always interesting. At times Cody's writing strives to be a little more hip than is warranted, but in the grand scheme of entertainment, all is forgiven. Nevertheless, I won't be one to proclaim this a great film, or even one of the year's ten best, as it has appeared on many prominent critic's lists. Taking it for what it is - a smalltime comedy that puts faith in its character and her tale - it won me over with surprising ease. To those who have listened to the critics piling on endless praise and are expecting a knockout, I would suggest trying to shut out that notion and come into it expecting modest charms and small cherished pleasures. Come in expecting small and you'll get more than your money's worth; come in expecting big and you'll still be waiting for it by the time the credits roll.
©2008 Vince Leo