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Juno   A-

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Diablo Cody
Cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirlby.

Review by Rob Vaux

I'm not fond of the soundtrack: smug, quasi-indie Liz Phair style mooning that gilds the film's lily in all the worst ways. I mention this now because it is the only thing about Juno that didn't utterly enchant me from beginning to end. Story, character, brilliant dialogue from screenwriter Diablo Cody, and sharp direction from Jason Reitman... every element arrives with pitch-perfect care to deliver one of the funniest and most insightful human comedies of the last few years.

I almost hesitate to use the term "human comedy," because it belies the subtle accomplishments of Reitman and his team. In other hands this material could be disastrous: a hot-button subject (teen pregnancy) delivered as a sitcom style ensemble piece and marked by the insidious presence of grand contrivance lurking around every corner. Juno slays those demons by its extraordinary devotion to the characters -- first by making them supremely appealing and then by leveraging the plot through their (very believable) motivations rather than pandering to the audience or indulging in political grandstanding.

Case in point: title character Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), a surly yet chipper Minnesota teen who finds herself in the family way after the accidentally-on-purpose seduction of best bud Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). Hollywood's standard-issue playbook for such a dilemma entails a thick slice of liberal gutlessness: making all kinds of noises about a woman's right to choose, then ducking the issue by letting her "choose" to have the baby. At first glance, Juno follows the routine in lockstep... except that the decision comes not from high-toned moral pondering or thinly disguised filmmaker agendas, but because Juno herself doesn't like the funk inside the women's health center. "The friggin' receptionist was just babbling away about her boyfriend's pie balls," she snarls to her friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), a typically acerbic remark that helps liberate the character from the Very Important Issue she supposedly represents.

Cody's script couches every development in such terms, reinventing expected twists by drawing us closer to the figures at the center of them. Having decided to bear the child, Juno sets out in search of adoptive parents, and soon comes across an uptight yuppie couple (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) in the pages of the Pennysaver. Garner's Vanessa disguises desperate nesting urges beneath suburban refinement, while Bateman's Mark strikes up a not-quite appropriate friendship with Juno that resurrects his long-slumbering Peter Pan instincts. They allow for a few routine complications to shake things up (as do Alison Janney and J.K. Simmons as Juno's grumbling yet supportive parents), but Cody marries them so deeply to motivation rather than contrivance that we end up seeing them with entirely new eyes.

Reitman, for his part, exercises exquisite delicacy in coaxing Juno's charms to the surface. His knack for humor gives the jokes a pleasantly sarcastic air, but he doesn't allow terminal hipness to obscure the emotional core of his film. The cast lends him outstanding aid in that regard. Much is being made of Page, whose performance anchors the picture with smart, biting, and quietly soulful truth. Like her costars Cera and Thrilby, she betrays no hint of child-star glamour, no unspeakable beauty trying to pass itself off as typical adolescence. The three of them look and act like normal kids: precocious and appealing, but also fumbling, awkward, and hugely skeptical of the larger world that Juno's pregnancy has brought uninvited to their door. Cera, having honed his deer-in-the-headlights look to jeweled perfection, contrasts nicely with his TV dad Bateman. Neither figure quite grasps the implications of fatherhood, each hiding behind the pretense of being Juno's pal. But while Bleeker bolsters that with a slowly blossoming sense of responsibility, Mark tries to make the retreat permanent: protection against a reality he lacks the fortitude to acknowledge. Like the rest of the film, the feminist overtones of their behavior (and Juno's eventual response) arise with careful yet confident grace.

To do all that and still make Juno so hysterically funny requires a tightrope act of deceptive skill. Reitman never hesitates for an instant, delivering a constant stream of impeccably quotable one-liners that enhance rather that disrupt the underlying story. The pop-culture references fly thick and fast, yet never draw attention to themselves the way similar "quirky" scripts might. We know the arc it follows (pregnancy is pretty predictable that way) and we know how it will eventually turn out. So why does Juno surprise us and move us and defy our expectations at every turn? Because the figures onscreen matter more to it than the artisans creating them. Juno is neither Page nor Cody nor Reitman, but her own fully realized person, speaking to us in the extraordinary rhythm of real life. Rare is the film that understands how wonderful that can be... and rarer are the filmmakers who can find such a rich, humorous, and special way of expressing it.

Review published 12.05.2007.

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