Unique voices at the multiplex seem rare these days. With the past year full of sequels and remakes, it’s always nice when a true indie pokes out its colorful head and gets real distribution. Juno is such a film, a movie with a character and charm all its own. Filled with fun dialogue, great performances and compelling characters to propel it forward, it is a film worth seeing. I don’t think it’s as great as all the hype surrounding it, but it still makes for a solid view.
Free thinker Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is sixteen years old and pregnant. After changing her mind about abortion, she locates the perfect couple who could adopt her baby: the well-to-do Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). In the meantime, she tries to keep a good relationship with boyfriend/father Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), her dad (J.K. Simmons), stepmom (Alison Janney) and best friend (Olivia Thirlby). Another friendship develops as she gets closer to dad-to-be Mark, who is pretty cool for an older guy. When things don’t go as expected, can Juno maintain her upbeat attitude and snappy one-liners?
The first thing you’ll notice about Juno is the writing. Penned by first time screenwriter Diablo Cody, Juno exists in that world where everybody is quirky and witty and clever. Sometimes this can be off-putting and phony, but it works here. Juno is your basic smart-alec who speaks in pop culture references and snarky put downs. She’s still a kid, however, and it is refreshing when the wall of her sarcasm drops, that she’s a vulnerable teenager that doesn’t know everything and has real feelings. The screenplay reflects this, and as things become more real, so does the dialogue. It’s also a credit to Cody that she gives everyone three dimensions, not just the leads.
The acting here is first rate, and everyone is excellent. Ellen Page is simply perfect as the well beyond her years title character, and she proves that her strong work in Hard Candy (2006) was no fluke. She absolutely nails this part, with her pixie face showing all kinds of emotion and range, underplaying everything. The rest of the cast is equally as committed, with one of my favorite character actors Simmons (Spider-Man 3) shining as dad Mac MacGuff (the way he delivers lines like “dating in your condition is pretty...messed up” is hysterical), and Cera (Superbad) who could play the awkward nerd in his sleep.
Did I mention the movie was funny? There are some genuine laughs here, many of them born from the expressions on faces, and wry observation, not slapstick. There are no gross-out jokes, although the film is a bit crude, much like the cynical Juno. I loved the fact that Juno has a malfunctioning hamburger phone, and that Bleeker’s one vice is orange Tic-Tacs. Many jokes are based on pop culture knowledge, so those in the know will be chuckling more than those who aren’t.
While Juno does a lot of things right, there are a few things that held it back for me. The main one has to be the somewhat flippant attitude the movie takes toward teen pregnancy. Since there is a turn toward more seriousness, Juno opens the door for this issue to be handled in a more serious manner, which it doesn’t. The baby is basically a plot device, and no one seems truly impacted or made responsible for their actions. Life goes on and we can all just forget about this little bump in the road. I expected more from of movie of this quality, but the film didn’t give it to me. As a result, there seemed to be an underlying sadness that lingers throughout this movie, one that I couldn’t ignore.
Despite this, Juno is a good movie. It is funny and unusual and thoughtful, and Ellen Page hits one out of the park. Diablo Cody is worth following, and director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) didn’t choke on his sophmore feature. Some have referred to Juno as the “female Napolean Dynamite”, but watch out if you adhere to that label. Juno is smarter and more streetwise than that film, and while it may not make teen pregnancy look so bad, it will make you think and smile at the same time.