When is a teen sex comedy not a teen sex comedy? When it’s good.
Directed by Jason Reitman
Cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman
In a year filled with unwanted pregnancies--from Waitress to Knocked Up to Jamie Lynn Spears--who would have guessed the funniest of all unplanned impregnations would occur on Christmas Day? Having built a considerable amount of eager anticipation on the film fest circuit, the post-teen-sex comedy Juno is finally being delivered to theaters. A labor of love from stripper-turned-writer Diablo Cody (author of Candy Girl) and famous-director-offspring-turned-famous-director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking), Juno easily earns a spot as one of the best films of the year.
Increasingly essential young actress Ellen Page (Hard Candy, X-Men: The Last Stand) stars as Juno MacGuff, a snarky, cynical 16-year-old oddball who surrenders to boredom one fateful evening and sleeps with her best friend, dorky but nice Paulie Bleeker (increasingly essential young actor Michael Cera from Superbad). As every Surgeon General under George W. Bush has implied, this bout of ill-advised premarital experimentation leads directly to pregnancy.
Nearly every Hollywood movie views babies as a panacea, rendering irresponsible people suddenly trustworthy, cynical people instantly romantic and self-centered people abruptly altruistic. For Juno, however, a baby simply isn’t the cure for all her problems. In fact, a baby is just about the only problem she’s got. There’s never a moment in this film when our heroine thinks she has the skills, resources, time or inclination to raise a child. And yet, she makes a rather unusual decision regarding this unwanted fertilization. Dismissing abortion as an option, Juno decides she’ll simply carry the baby to term and then give it to “some lady with a bum ovary, or a couple nice lesbos.”
Juno’s decision isn’t based on any religious or moral conviction--it just seems like the most prudent course of action for her. She tells Bleeker, who reacts like most boys would: stunned but supportive. She tells her parents, who react like most parents would: disappointed but supportive. And then she hooks up with a too-perfect-to-be-perfect suburban couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) desperate to adopt a child and willing to cover her medical expenses. “If I could just have the thing and give it to you now, I totally would. But I'm guessing it probably looks like a sea monkey right now, and I should let it get a little cuter,” she assures the couple.
There are micro-moments when Juno has the faint air of Napoleon Dynamite about it: the off-kilter color palette, the “dorks are cool” attitude and the unshakable feeling that this is going to evolve into a major cult hit. The tone, however, is far different--much more realistic and ultimately quite a bit funnier to a broader range of viewers. It’s aimed at hip young people, sure; but parents will laugh their asses off as well.
Cody demonstrates a perfect ear for dialogue and captures the rhythms of teenage conversation to a T. Funny as her observational script is (at times, screamingly so), Cody has managed to create a compelling and endearing narrative to match. There’s a lot to be said here about responsibility and maturity (even if it’s an acknowledgment of one’s own lack thereof). The film follows Juno through all nine months of her pregnancy. And it’s no walk in the park. She becomes an outcast at school, she grows increasingly confused about her relationship with Bleeker and she occasionally fights with her parents. But she never doubts her course of action--even when she’s hiding her vulnerability and compassion beneath a mask of ironic accessories and cocky quips. She’s a remarkable creation--one of the freshest, most honest characters of this or any year. Even her choice in music (moody, lo-fi selections from Kimya Dawson and The Moldy Peaches) seems perfectly down-to-earth.
Wonderful as Page is as our eponymous gal, she’s backed by an equally talented cast of actors. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are perfect as Juno’s occasionally understanding parents. (Their reaction to the naming of the babydaddy is priceless.) As expected, Cera is outstanding in yet another nerd icon role. (Eat your heart out, Anthony Michael Hall.) Mr. Bateman, meanwhile, is always welcome on screens big and small. (Hell, any film that raids the cast of “Arrested Development” has got its thinking cap on.) With such a commendable bunch of performers, it’s almost surprising that Jennifer Garner emerges as the standout actor. Like all the characters in Cody’s open-minded, cliché-free script, her infertile yuppie wife has her good and bad points. Yeah, she’s uptight and a bit too brittle, but it’s obvious she’d make a great mom--something Juno quickly recognizes. Garner’s got a couple moments--not the least of which is the scene where she tries to bond with Juno’s overstuffed belly--that are quietly heartbreaking.
Segments like that aren’t in short supply either. Juno is brimming with scenes that catch you off guard--funny, smart, touching and extremely perceptive moments you just weren’t expecting. And yet they feel so perfectly right, so dead on target. Simply put, Juno couldn’t have been more perfectly conceived.
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