Juno (2007) dir. Jason Reitman
Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, JK Simmons, Alison Janney
“Juno” is a deceptively simple story about teenage girl and her pregnancy – imagine “Knocked Up” with adoptive parents. It’s a different type of comedy though, not gag-based, but situation-based. A colleague of mine likened it to a glorified extended sitcom. That’s a good comparison – but a well-done sitcom at its best and worthy of a feature film treatment.
Ellen Page is Juno, one of those unflappable cynical teenagers who feels superior to all obstacles in her way – including pregnancy. The film opens with her taking a pregnancy test – three in fact. While most 16 year olds would feel ashamed of buying one, Juno proudly takes her tests in a gas station with support from a random gas attendant (a funny cameo from Rainn Wilson). Juno doesn’t cry or even looked shocked – instead just accepts it as another part of life she stumbles into. She considers all options including abortion but decides to keep the baby and give it to adopting parents in need of a child.
Via the Pennysaver she chooses Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) – two yuppie conservatives from the suburbs. Juno’s friendship with Mark grows when she discovers he’s a former musician who secretly loathes his middle-class lifestyle. They find common ground in the rebelliousness of their music and pop culture idols. Meanwhile Juno’s relationship with Paulie (Michael Cera), the father of her child, falls apart despite their continued attraction to each other. Juno’s escalated maturity blinds her to the joys of true teenage love, which is slowly passing her by.
Surprisingly the film manages to thoroughly entertain solely on dialogue, acting and comic timing. One of the golden rules of screenwriting is to create conflict. But there is virtually no conflict until the third act. It’s either a stroke of genius or luck because by avoiding conflict the film actually avoids the clichés of the genre. Take the scene when Juno tells her parents of her pregnancy. I expected the parents to scream and shout and resent their daughter for her carelessness. Instead their reaction is indeed disappointment but they are measured and composed. And a few clever lines of dialogue cap off the great scene.
For Juno her meeting with the adoptive parents is surprisingly easy as well. We expect obstacles to be thrown at Juno, Mark and Vanessa. But everything seems to go smoothly – too smoothly. The obstacles are thrown at the characters in the third act and they indeed test Juno’s strength and resolve. Without overtly teasing us, Reitman builds some strong tension with the fate of the baby during these moments especially after a dramatic reveal from Mark. It’s nitpicking but at this point, the film had an opportunity to move into darker territory, but it continues to stay on the straight and narrow.
And perhaps it’s more sour grapes, but am I the only one getting sick of the overused indie-film-quirky elements which Reitman unnecessarily reuses – the tender acoustic guitar music (a la “Little Miss Sunshine”, “Garden State” or even going back to “The Graduate”), the early 80’s geek chic (please no more ironic headbands in films please) and the scratchy hand-animated inter-titles?
The film is brilliantly cast with some of the brightest and funniest comic character actors around – an ironically enough, most are from television. Those who know Ellen Page’s work (“Hard Candy”, “The Tracey Fragments”) will not be surprised that she is fantastic as Juno. But for newbies behold her starmaking performance. Enjoy.