Juno is so good that it’s had me flummoxed. The first few drafts of this review struggled to explain not only why but how the movie is good, how the comedy and drama intertwine so perfectly or how the characters develop onscreen with eye-popping clarity. But a plot description makes it sound like a Lifetime movie, and words like “quirky” and “hip” make it sound insufferable.
In short, Juno is almost too unique for description, a tour-de-force comedy with tremendous heart, a crackling screenplay aided by standout performances across the board, and a shift in tone from director Jason Reitman’s debut, Thank You for Smoking, that still maintains that earlier film’s devilish intelligence.
Juno (Ellen Page) is a 16-year-old used to making her own rules, calling her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) on a phone shaped like a hamburger, wearing t-shirts advertising Slinkys and planning a spring-break trip to Gettysburg. When she decides to have sex with childhood friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) and gets accidentally pregnant, she’s the last person anyone in school would have expected it from. “I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when,” says her otherwise-understanding dad (J.K. Simmons). “I’m not really sure what kind of girl I am,” Juno responds.
After deciding not to have an abortion, Juno seeks out adoptive parents in the classifieds—“next to the exotic birds,” explains Leah—and finds Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark Loring (Jason Bateman), a photogenic couple living in a cream-colored McMansion in the suburbs. Juno hits it off with Mark and admires Vanessa’s fierce desire to be a mother, and over the course of the next nine months Juno becomes, as she tells Mark, “a piece of furniture in your weird life.”
Reitman employs clean, offbeat cinematography that tones down Smoking’s visual sarcasm, and throws in lots of lovely acoustic guitar indie rock that is bound to make the soundtrack a hit. Most importantly, he deftly sidesteps all the potential pitfalls in the simple story, aided considerably by Diablo Cody’s debut screenplay. Reitman and Cody together create some of the most multi-dimensional characters ever seen on screen, with each actor stepping confidently into their roles. Simmons is warm and hilarious as Juno’s father, and teams up well with the always-brilliant Allison Janney, as Juno’s dog-obsessed, sharp-tongued stepmom, Bren. Even more impressive are Bateman and Garner, who portray the dissolution of a seemingly perfect couple with heartbreaking restraint. Garner is revelatory as Vanessa, a tightly wound perfectionist who is still deeply human. Janney and Garner both go miles with characters that are so often one-note archetypes, and the scene they finally share at the end might be the most touching of the film.
Cera has yet to prove he can play anything but a gangly teenager, but he does it here well, making Paulie both awkward and believably sexy, in a way. Thirlby is also excellent, but the film, of course, belongs to Ellen Page. She captures Juno with such warmth and intelligence it’s disappointing to realize she’s not, in fact, her character. As she says herself, Juno is dealing with things “way beyond my maturity level,” and Page steps up to the grown-up plate without losing Juno’s youthful awkwardness. Tough-talking but vulnerable, quick with a comeback but clueless about romance, Page’s Juno perfectly represents the film’s balance of cynicism and heart.
The whip-smart dialogue and nonstop one-liners may be alienating for some viewers, but the old-fashioned goodness at the center of the film has a universal appeal. For all its smarty-pants trappings, Juno never condescends to its audience, and tells an emotionally satisfying story without veering into ironic hipster shtick. If it can escape from an urban indie niche market, like its closest comparison Little Miss Sunshine, Juno should find a wide audience and, yes, be an awards contender. It’s hard to think of another film this year more deserving of that kind of attention.