Eugene Weekly : Movies : 1.10.08


Immaculate Conception
Sixteen, pregnant and a gift to us all

JUNO: Directed by Jason Reitman. Written by Diablo Cody. Cinematography, Eric Steelberg. Music, Matt Messina. Starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons. Fox Searchlight, 2007. PG-13. 92 minutes.

Jennifer Garner and Ellen Page in Juno

Like many of you, I’d been waiting for Juno to appear like one anticipates the arrival of a newborn baby. That is to say, not without trepidation, but with the sense that the world might be changed by its arrival. To pass the time, I did plenty of research, preparing myself as best I could, but alas, I couldn’t escape the feeling that upon delivery, something would go horribly wrong with Juno. Some defect might emerge that in utero wasn’t detected by the scant images (and squeaky folk tunes) comprising the theatrical preview. (As beguiling a preview, I might add, as any in recent memory.) It’s therefore a pleasure to report that Juno has arrived safely into the world and, at least in terms of comedy films, the world is a better place for it.

After a quirky, animated title sequence, director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) cuts efficiently to the chase: Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) and Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), following a single sexual encounter in a lounge chair, manage to impregnate tiny Juno, who’s all of 16. The encounter, the result of idle curiosity between friends, is filmed tactfully, maximizing the awkwardness between them. Told in retrospect, the scene sets up the twin themes of the film, namely the sweet agony of surviving adolescence — at one point, Juno feigns hanging herself with a licorice noose, before calling a friend with her hamburger phone — and the difficulty of entering adulthood too soon. Juno, with the support of her parents (J.K Simmons and Allison Janney) and best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), hatches a plan to offer the baby for adoption, leaving Paulie noticeably out of the equation.

Complications ensue in the form of Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), the couple Juno chooses to adopt her “sea monkey.” Wealthy and wholesome, they couldn’t be more excited about the adoption. At least, one of them couldn’t. The other isn’t so sure. This revelation, in particular the way Diablo Cody’s script allows it to surface, is what elevates Juno from a very good film to a great one. Suddenly, everything Juno has taken for granted unravels, forcing her, as she puts it, to confront matters “way beyond my maturity level.” The film, formerly tender, fragile and crammed with music, becomes a tale of emotional survival, in which some relationships will crumble and others will be restored. In that sense, Juno is this year’s Little Miss Sunshine, although to my mind, Juno is a slightly better film.

Not that Juno, which hits often, doesn’t miss. During the first third, the script resembles a teen jargon generator; by trying too earnestly to create authentic teen chatter — Leah’s reaction to Juno’s pregnancy is “Honest to blog?” — the movie falls into an instant-messaging trap, a self-consicously clever but ultimately disposable dead-end. (The now-famous “homeskillet” scene is too clever by half.) But after faltering ever so slightly, the film asserts itself by virtue of its ensemble cast — a most unlikely ensemble cast, I’ll grant you, but a cast that nonetheless deserves the moniker. Simmons (Superman Returns) has never been used so effectively, while Janney (The West Wing) finally seems comfortable on film. Both Bateman and Garner are at their very best here, but it’s Garner who breaks new ground for herself, so delicately does she play a woman whose self-worth is linked to motherhood. But the biggest star in Juno is tiny Ellen Page, who more than delivers on the potential she displayed in last year’s bracing Hard Candy. Page is what they used to call an ingénue; only 20, she has that rarest quality of getting stronger, not unlike Juno itself, with each passing frame. One of the year’s best films, Juno is impossibly sweet, but sweetest when it isn’t trying to be too smart.

Juno is now playing at Cinemark and VRC Stadium 15.