Mark Reviews Movies

JUNO

4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jason Reitman

Cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirlby

MPAA Rating:  (for mature thematic material, sexual content and language)

Running Time: 1:32

Release Date: 12/5/07 (limited); 12/14/07 (wider); 12/25/07 (wide)


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Review by Mark Dujsik

I love Juno.  She's smart.  She's sarcastic.  She's immature.  She's vulnerable.  At one point, she tells her father, "I don't know what kind of girl I am," but she's got a better idea of who she is as a person at 16 than most of the people I knew in college.  She's the kind of character about which most screenwriters can only dream—a fully realized character established completely in 90 minutes.  That she's the result of first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody (who has a backstory worthy of its own movie (it involves Chicago, Minnesota, an Internet boyfriend, and stripping)) is somewhat of a miracle in its own right.

I also love Juno, which is at the top of a list of very fine comedies this year.  It takes the theoretically unfunny, hot-button topic of teenage pregnancy and makes a hilarious, touching, and very human comedy.  Cody could have played up the subversive, satirical possibilities of the scenario, but her first script is too smart, her affection for her characters too strong, to mistreat the story and its inhabitants so.  Juno is a whimsical coming-of-age story that never feels like one, with a spot-on look at the boredom of the Midwest, a move toward poignancy that never lapses into sentimentality, and an attitude uniquely its own.

Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) lives is a quiet town in Minnesota.  She's drinking an entire two-gallon bottle of orange juice and remembering her first sexual experience with Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), which took place on a chair she has to move—along with an entire living room set.  The orange juice is to prep for a pregnancy test, her third this day.  Just like the others, this one comes out positive.  She calls up her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), who, after a gradual transition into what Juno thinks is the appropriate level of shock, asks the important question: What is she going to do?  "I think I'm just going to nip it in the bud," is Juno's plan.

She arrives at a women's clinic, only to meet a fellow classmate protesting abortion.  "Your baby has fingernails," the classmate tells Juno.  This, along with the cavalier attitude (and frank talk of what flavored condoms do to her boyfriend's junk) of the clinic's receptionist, makes Juno change her mind.  Her next option: adoption.  Leah suggests looking in the Penny Saver for a couple "desperately seeking spawn," and Juno finds perfect couple in Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner).

First, though, she has to tell her father Mac (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother Bren (Allison Janney), and it's just one of many pitch-perfect scenes in Cody's screenplay.  You can see it on their faces: They know what Juno is about to say.  They propose a bevy of alternatives—hard drugs, DUI, expulsion—but when she's finally ready to tell them, they sit up, bracing themselves for the news.  The dialogue that ensues shows Mac as the usual protective father with a trace of nonchalant humor ("Next time I see that Bleeker kid, I'm going to punch him in the wiener.") and Bren as a supportive, caring mother, instantly getting ready to buy vitamins and set up a doctor's appointment.

A lot of folks won't care for Cody's dialogue, which tosses in pop-culture references and random colloquialisms at will, but there's obviously a great deal of attention to the words she chooses for her characters to say.  Take the line that prompts Juno's line I mentioned in the first paragraph.  Mac tells his daughter, "I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when."  Not, "when to say no;" "when to say when."  One word changes from what we expect, and it speaks volumes about Mac's attitude toward his daughter.  The scene goes a step further and watches Mac and Bren's reaction to the news—a scene unnecessary to story but important to the characters.

Then there are Mark and Vanessa.  They have a perfect life.  They own a beautiful house in a gated community (director Jason Reitman embraces Cody's lack of satirical commentary but comes close to it as Mac and Juno drive past the little boxes that all look just the same in the Lorings' neighborhood).  He used to be in a band in Chicago and now writes commercial jingles.  She's wanted a baby since they got married.  They have studio photographs of themselves in smiling poses adorning the stairwell.  There's another great scene between Mac, Juno, Mark, and Vanessa with an attorney as witness to set the terms on the adoption.

Just as in Juno's breaking of the news to her parents, Cody sticks around after Mac and Juno have left the Loring home.  Vanessa simply hugs her husband, cooing with joy at the news that they will soon have a baby.  Their story could be over here until the birth, but Juno and Mark strike up a relationship based on music and gory horror movies—mix CDs and jam sessions.  Vanessa seems a worrywart perfectionist, while Mark seems the too-cool-for-school kid.  Cody shifts our expectations of what those traits really are and what they mean to Juno as her pregnancy—and growth in maturity in the process—progresses.

Juno and her worldview are present throughout as the seasons pass and she gets closer to delivery.  Her voiceovers comment on the culture of high school (jocks secretly want nerdy girls), the reaction of those around her to her pregnancy (they call her the "cautionary whale"), what has made her who she is (the cacti her mother sends every Valentine's Day sting "almost as much as [her] abandonment"), and everyone surrounding her.  The casting of those people is spot-on.  Michael Cera is charmingly nerdy as her quasi-not-boyfriend.

J.K. Simmons is downright hilarious with his deadpan delivery and moving as he tries to tell his daughter there is the possibility that two people can spend their lives together.  Allison Janney has a character-defining scene in which she properly defends her daughter against a judgmental ultrasound technician.  Jason Bateman is subtly pessimistic about the whole thing for reasons that should seem obvious but only become so later.  Jennifer Garner is a bit of a revelation here in what might be the most affecting performance in the film.  The last scenes might be primarily about Juno, but Garner's touching portrayal makes them equally about Vanessa on an emotional level.

And of course, there's Ellen Page as Juno.  She's a firecracker in this role, an embodiment of everything Cody tries to get out of the character.  She personifies all those qualities with which I started, and it's a wonderful marriage of character and actor.  Reitman's direction will go overlooked, but that's simply because he understands the script's intentions, tone, and characters so well.  Juno is a lovely gem.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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