Probably the quirkiest coming-of-age comedy to come along in recent memory, Jason Reitman’s follow-up to his savagely entertaining Thank You For Smoking (2005) tackles teen pregnancy — a subject heretofore relegated to weepie melodramas, after-school specials, and health science tutorials. But Juno is something unlike any of those august aforementioned genres, proving itself to be many things at once and a stellar success at each. Diablo Cody’s lovely debut screenplay is, for its pure and uncompromising sense of the offbeat, the work of an untainted newcomer. Cody’s dialogue not only bristles with the kind of sarcastic one-liners that would make a John Hughes’ era Molly Ringwald green with envy, but also glows in several passages deeply moving in their human honesty and feeling.
Ellen Page made a striking impression in her high-wattage turn in the molestation thriller Hard Candy (2005) and delivered, I think, an even gutsier performance in Mouth to Mouth, the teenage runaway drama from later that year. Page has a guilelessness about her rare in movie stars — in a single scene, even in the course of a single exchange, Page can turn from sweet and coy to droll and sarcastic without missing a beat. She plays each moment without ego and with total candor, and that’s ultimately the secret to Juno’s success.
Page plays the title teenager, Juno MacGuff, who gets pregnant after she and her not-quite-boyfriend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera playing a somewhat sweeter and smarter version of the aw-shucks doofus he perfected in TV’s Arrested Development and this year’s generally super-good Superbad) seal the deal on Paulie’s chair one day. Juno decides to go through with the pregnancy, and, when it arrives, to give it up for adoption. She selects as prospective parents a yuppie couple, the Lorings, who live out in the upscale ‘burbs.
This may be the best thing Jennifer Garner has yet to date — as the nervous Vanessa Loring, anxious to adopt after being unable to conceive, Garner is a force of beautiful, radiant tragicomic energy, as she anxiously tries to support Juno through her pregnancy while trying to keep her marriage with frustrated musician Mark (Jason Bateman) together. The latter seems a rocky proposition from the moment we meet the Lorings: Vanessa seems fully committed to their decision to adopt, while Mark hems and haws. Indeed, Bateman, the star of Arrested Development, plays a character suffering from that very condition as Mark seems utterly incapable of growing out of his nostalgia for his own youth. Mark and the unwitting Juno develop an altogether strange bond over their mutual love of punk music, while Vanessa and Paulie seem both exiled into the outer orbit of their respective lives.
Mark and Juno’s relationship comes back to bite of them, and propels Juno into a closer and more meaningful bond with those she truly loves and needs — Paulie and Vanessa, of course, but her parents as well, played by the dynamite Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons. The reference earlier to John Hughes is apt again here as Simmons’ performance recalls Paul Dooley’s work opposite Ringwald as his heartsick daughter in Sixteen Candles. Like Dooley’s father, Simmons’ Mac MacGuff has a wry, bearish warmth and genuine compassion for his daughter that’s so rare in movies, a relationship without screaming matches and hissy fits, and exuding a pure paternal desire to understand his child. Ditto Janney’s stepmother Bren who’s as testy and dedicated a mom as they come in the movies.
Across the board, Juno boasts terrific work, from Reitman’s on-target direction and Cody’s bulls-eye script, to the performances, especially Page’s (who’s poised now for a legitimate shot at A-list stardom). What I came away admiring in Juno wasn’t necessarily the cleverness of its dialogue, or its silly, witty one-liners, but the heart beating througout, at the movie’s core. Ultimately, Juno is a movie about true love, acceptance, and doing right by the people who’ve stuck their necks out for you: those being family, your closest friends, and, in Juno’s case, your surrogate mother too. All in all, this is a heartfelt, tightly constructed piece of work that washes out the sour taste of another pregnancy themed comedy from earlier this year — the ubiquitous Judd Apatow’s overrated, overhyped, bloated-beyond-comprehension entitled…I’d rather not say.
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Diablo Cody
Cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirlby