It's hard to remember the last time I saw a comedy so clever, whip-smart, crisply written, wondrously acted and acutely directed. It goes to show that there really aren't stale premises, just stale styling. Written by Diablo Cody with a quick ear for smart dialogue (most of which is entirely quotable) and fresh, engaging characters, and an ensuing generosity of spirit rarely exhibited in movies at all anymore. Her writing is so strong it sparks a sort of simpatico response of director Jason Reitman, (justly made all hip by following this hoot on the heals of the cool Thank You For Smoking), and an engaging ensemble chewing up the words, all lead by an incomparable leading lady in Ellen Page (last seen terrorizing Patrick Wilson in Hard Candy.) What's great about Juno is that it has the ability to have it's own personality without overflowing the quirk factor-- these characters are so fresh because they're regular people, not weirdly disconnected from reality in a Napoleon Dynamite, or even Little Miss Sunshine kind of way. It's sweet and funny and tenderly gets it's laughs and even a few heartstrings moving without ever being too saccharine or manipulative about it, and that's the glory of Juno, how it's perfectly pitched into a sort of everything-will-be-alright crowdpleaser, while also truthfully acknowledging the life-is-a-bitch honesty of growing up.
The story starts with a fateful day when one Juno McGruff (Ellen Page), all of 16, freely and willfully engaged in unprotected intercourse with Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), out of boredom, ennui, curiosity- whatever. This action leads to her unplanned pregnancy. With equally quick-witted best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), stern father Mac (J.K. Simmons), and strong-minded stepmother Bren (Allison Janney) as tender, if highly pointed support, Juno makes the decision to have the child and give it to a couple, "that totally needs it." The movie delves for a second into the subject of abortion, making acute jokes on both side in a refreshing who cares about politics manner. The search of the perfect couple leads to Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), an attractive, impossibly well-groomed prospect with fine furnishings and a nursery ready for a paint job.
As the film tours the nine months of Juno's expected, an unexpected maturity takes hold of the film. Just when you think the witty repartee will fall over it's own cleverness, the film slows down a bit, not so much as the comedy suffers, but enough to be impactful on a deeper level. What blossoms is a friendship between Juno and Mark, who bond over graphic horror movies and a yen for music. Mark, stifled by Vanessa's all encompassing need for a child (which Garner plays quite well) takes to Juno in a nicely completely platonic way. And of course Juno and Bleeker who encounter the trials of an unexpectedly interrupted adolescence which develops into a sincere romance, one such rarely expressed in such a youthful film. It brings to mind a bit of Say Anything. What's nice is that no one really gets off the hook here, but no one is really judged either, a testament to the strength of Cody's screenplay.
It would all be clever words on a page however without a leading lady as compelling and enchanting as Ellen Page. She's makes Juno an actual person, instead of a series of idiosyncratic tics. She makes the comedy work by not trying to hard and finally becomes undone by her own wit toward the end and expresses the heart and soul of a young woman looking to be understood by the world. As in Hard Candy, she is immensely watchable and her every line reading carries a sting-- here it's also with a tenderness and heart. Her characterization in my world belongs on the same plane as the girls in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World-- witty, intelligent, smart-asses looking for direction and a place to fit in. And she's ably supported by Simmons, Janney, and especially Cera, who would come off as nothing but a cipher but proves a delightfully dead-pan yin to Page's yang.
And with Juno, it reinforces my faith in modern comedy and shows a template for a trifecta of three monstrously talented people-- Diablo Cody (whose stripper-cum-hot screenwriter backstory is in itself part of the film's lure), Jason Reitman, and Page. As Juno herself puts it at the end, this film is, "the cheese to my macaroni." A