JUNO, the new comedy from director Jason Reitman (THANK YOU FOR SMOKING), is one of those quirky, pseudo-independent films that a lot of people absolutely flip out for. Me…I liked it. I really liked it. I didn’t love it, however, and I’m not exactly sure why that is. I’ve seen it twice now; there’s no debating that debut screenwriter Diablo Cody is someone to watch. Her script is punchy, sharp, and frequently funny. There’s a certain charm and a distinct air of melancholy that hangs over this comedic farce, and while I don’t think it reaches the heights of this year’s other pregnancy comedy KNOCKED UP, JUNO is a sweet little movie that is going to find a passionate audience. Possibly a bit too smug and self-satisfied for its own good, JUNO has shades of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and ELECTION running through its veins. I found myself constantly smiling and chuckling all throughout, and occasionally laughing out loud; it’s one of those comedies that needs to be seen twice because you will miss some of the jokes the first time around.
Ellen Page, who blew me away with her performance in last year’s HARD CANDY, is Juno, a spunky 16 year old Minnesota high school student who ends up pregnant after a fling with her best friend Paulie (a terrific Michael Cera). They’re not a couple per se, but it’s clear that there are some feelings between the two of them. They’re better friends than they are lovey-dovey boyfriend and girlfriend; the respect that they have for one another is the glue that keeps them together. So what’s a 16 year old pregnant girl to do? Get an abortion? After a messy encounter at a clinic, Juno decides that she’s going to have the baby, but give it up for adoption to a couple in need. And here’s where the best elements of the story come into focus. Juno picks a typical yuppie couple who are having problems conceiving naturally; the parents-to-be are played with perfection by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner. From there, the film becomes a statement about personal responsibility and the effects that something only like a pregnancy can bring to caring people. To even hint at the film’s ending would be a crime. Rounding out the ensemble cast is the always awesome J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno’s very understanding parents, and Rainn Wilson in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo. But the film belongs to Page, who dominates the screen every time she appears; she’s a lock for a best actress Oscar nomination.
Reitman, whose debut film was the brilliant satire THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, is a natural born storyteller (his dad is comedy director Ivan Reitman). He has an easy-going, relaxed style and creates a particular rhythm with JUNO that feels effortless and breezy. The script by Cody is always self-aware and knowing, and it’s here where the movie gets a little too smart for its own good. I’m just not sure if teenagers really talk they way they do in this film as they do in real life. The dialogue has the attitude of a 28 year old blogger (which Cody is); it’s a heightened form of speech that you only see in the movies. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, when compared to the amazingly realistic dialogue of the similarly themed KNOCKED UP, Cody can’t compete. Her pg-13 rated vernacular and sexual lingo is certainly funny, but it’s too interested in pleasing itself rather than the audience; it was only until the second viewing that I caught some of the wittier, more subtle jokes. And the music, which works excellently while in context with what’s on screen, is of the usual soft-tempo, indie-rock variety that can sometimes become an annoyance. It’s a testament to Reitman’s skill as a director that he’s able to wrangle all of these elements into such a satisfying picture.
However, I have one major gripe with the film, which is that the two main characters never, even once, thought to use a condom. We see them in sex-ed class, being shown how a condom should be applied (a banana is used in a funny sight gag), and we have to assume that since kids nowadays have heard so much about teen pregnancy that Juno and Paulie might have thought about using protection. But nope, it’s never discussed or even lamented over after the pregnancy is revealed. There is something unique about the film’s stance on teen pregnancy; while not outright encouraging it, Cody and Reitman are basically saying that there’s a lot worse that could happen to a 16 year old girl than get pregnant and actually go through with the child birthing process. It’s sort of a bold statement to make in this day and age and I applaud the filmmakers for taking a different stance on this sensitive issue.
For me, though, the best parts of JUNO involve Bateman and Garner, who has personally never been better on the big screen. Bateman, playing the ultimate man-boy, is perfect at capturing the mundane and the mournful; he’s scared to become a father, and he’s not sure if he himself has fully grown up yet. Watch him as he’s in “his room” full of his music stuff; it’s priceless. Garner, who should be considered for a best supporting actress nomination for her work, is amazing. Playing a neurotic, OCD-inflicted worry-wort, she nails every scene she’s in. Watch the tender moment she has with Juno in the shopping mall when she puts her hands on Juno’s pregnant belly; there’s more truth in that once scene than most movies have in their entirety. She cuts such a convincing portrait of a slightly depressed, overly manicured, wannabe soccer mom that it’s hard not to empathize with her, especially when the script takes a few unexpected turns.
JUNO is a lot of fun. It’s a good-hearted comedy that will make you laugh, smile, and think a little. The quirks and kinks of a story like this can sometimes feel labored in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. Reitman strikes the right balance between the whimsy of his style and the acrid nature of Cody’s dialogue. It wouldn’t surprise me if JUNO becomes a big hit ala LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE; I personally preferred the former more than the latter (and I enjoyed LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE as well), and it was clear to me that the audience was eating all of JUNO right up. A definite crowd pleaser, JUNO will work its considerable charms over anyone who has a chance to see it.