Juno marks the second film for director Jason Reitman and the first for screenwriter Diablo Cody, author of the Pussy Ranch blog, which, surprisingly, has very little to do with baby kittens. Reitman, having made his debut with a swaggering adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking, is said to have done little to Cody’s screenplay about a too-smart teen preggers with a baby she’s planning to give away to a barren couple of yups; word is, the final script isn’t so different from the first draft even, which is mighty impressive once you get past the early-going rough patches that are more Wes Anderson than even Wes Anderson could imagine. With The Kinks’ “Well-Respected Man” blaring on the soundtrack in the first 15 minutes, you’re likely to get the indie-film shakes.
At first, Juno threatens to choke on its quotation-marks catchphrases—like when The Office‘s Rainn Wilson, cameoing as a convenience-store clerk, tells 16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) that her positive pregnancy test is “one doodle that can’t be undid, home skillet.” Or when Olivia Thirlby, as Juno’s best cheerleading pal Leah, uses “Phuket, Thailand” as an expletive. Or when Juno describes the perfect adoptive parents as a “cool graphic designer, mid-thirties, with a cool Asian girlfriend who totally rocks the bass— but I don’t want to be too particular.” Our heroine also digs McSweeney’s, Iggy and the Stooges, and Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Arch? Argh, yes.
But after a little while, the movie calms down and finds its center—no, its heart, which already sets it apart from the cutesy-quirky realm of Anderson, for whom ticks and affectations have replaced deliberation and emotion. Indeed, once it works its way through the first-timer’s lookatme! snark, Juno evolves into a thing of beauty and grace. By the end, it’s unexpectedly moving without ever once trolling for crocodile tears. It’s a sneak attack.
Juno begins to soar when Juno tells her father Mac (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother Bren (Allison Janney) that she’s pregnant. Juno thought about getting an abortion, but couldn’t do it—the clinic was too drab, its patients too hopeless, its receptionist too thoughtless. She doesn’t decide to have the kid to make a statement; she just can’t be bothered to stick it out in the most depressing waiting room on earth. So Juno spills it to her folks, who’d hoped that, oh, maybe their little girl was on drugs or had been popped for a DWI.
It takes all of two seconds for them to come around. Mac can’t believe that nebbishy high-school track star Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) is the dad: “Didn’t think he had it in him.” And Bren, a nail-salon tech, wants Juno on prenatal vitamins pronto: “They do great things for your nails, which is a plus.” That one living-room scene, so low-key (to the point where it almost seems normal) and thoughtful and sweet and simple, comes at just the right moment. Just when it feels as though Reitman and Cody are losing their wrestling match with the tone and texture, just when it feels like Juno‘s about to wink and nudge itself off the screen, it coalesces into a perfect movie about responsibility, maturity, and unconditional love.
Juno decides to have the child and give it to a couple desperate for a baby—in this case, Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner). Vanessa especially wants a child, and Garner delivers an unexpectedly poignant performance—didn’t know she had this in her. For a long while, we have no idea as to what to make of Vanessa. Cody and Reitman portray her initially as coldly WASP-perfect, all pearls and pleats; she’s got no sense of humor. There’s something even a little creepy about the Lorings, who’ve placed their baby-wanted ad in the PennySaver. They’re the Stepford Couple in a prefab McMansion a million miles from the warm embrace of the cluttered, middle-class MacGuff household.
It seems Mark and Juno are the kindred spirits, rockers and horror-film fans bound by their love of gore and guitars. They even fall in love, just a little bit— to where, yeah, it’s almost creepy. But Mark’s more boy than man, a Cobain wannabe in dirty tees—and a poor substitute for Paulie, already more of a man than Mark. Vanessa’s the Loring to whom Juno’s really bound, and Garner conveys a vast, lonely ache with just a heartbreaking wince when Juno points to her own ever-swelling belly and says, “You’re lucky it’s not you.”
I’ve seen Juno three times since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it only gets better with each viewing. The performances are so subtle that it takes a while to notice how terrific they all are. After three movies spent barking at Peter Parker from beneath a comic-book flattop, Simmons especially is a revelation. And Page, channeling Linda Cardellini’s character on
Freaks and Geeks, finds her way into—and past, way past—those early clever-clever lines, burrowing deep into Juno’s skin till she finds her soul.