Juno (2007): Jason Reitman’s Serio-Comedy, Written by Oscar Winner Diablo Cody, Starring Ellen Page

As a pregnant teenager, the versatile Ellen Page gives yet another charismatic performance in the smartly written serio comedy “Juno,” Jason Reitman’s follow-up to his highly acclaimed feature debut, “Thank You for Smoking.”
“Juno” benefits from an ultra-bright, authentic, occasionally foul-mouthed dialogue by Diablo Cody, a gifted scribe who seems to know inside out the world of teenagers today–the ways talk, play, dress, court–and get into trouble.

It’s hard to think of another film this season that’s so totally dependent on one actor. As she has shown in the two-handler “Hard Candy,” and in the Sundance indie “American Crime,” Canadian-born Page possesses bravura skills and endless dramatic and comedic range. Short and slender, the truly petite Page can effortlessly transform herself from a gamine-like creature to a cool tomboy to a beautiful and vulnerable girl–without any makeup, wardrobe, or props.

Films often come in thematic cycles, and it may or may not be a coincidence that this year alone, we have seen three or four Hollywood comedies about unwanted pregnancy and adoption, including Judd Apathow “Knocked Up” and Adrienne Shelley’s last effort, “Waitress,” both targeted at the late twentysomething crowd.

Since it deals with late adolescence pregnancy, “Juno” is a riskier and trickier proposition, walking a fine between a laugh-out-loud comedy, a glib and preachy melodrama, and a subtle coming-of-age yarn. Defying stereotypes, “Juno” treats with respect all of its characters, parents and teachers included, steering clear of old Hollywood clichs in depicting the adult world and how it “mistreats” and “misunderstands” the younger generation.

Positive response to “Juno,” while traveling the fall festival circuit (Telluride, Toronto), might have encouraged distributor Fox Searchlight to release the film on December 14, a time usually reserved for “Oscar-caliber” contenders. And while “Juno” may not be an obvious contender for Best Picture, at least three performances deserve serious Oscar considerations: Page as Best Actress, J.K. Simmons, who plays Page’s father, as Supporting Actor, and Allison Janney, Page’s step-mom, as Supporting Actress.

Punctuated by Juno’s self-consciously clever voice-over narration, “Juno” begins and ends with the image of an abandoned easy chair”It all started with a chair” Juno says in the feature’s first sentence. Tale is structured along the four seasons, beginning in the autumn (which occupies about half of the running time), before moving onto the winter and spring, and ending on a brief but emotionally satisfying note in the summer. The seasons, each starting with postcard-like shot of a group of boys jogging, parallel the trimesters of Juno’s pregnancy.

As the title character June MacGuff, named after Zeus’ wife, Page plays a 16-year-old high-schooler who gets knocked up (she says “sex was pre-meditated but not the pregnancy) by classmate Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera, last seen in the comedy “Super Bad”). A precocious, ultra-bright girl, Juno lives with her working-class dad Mac (Simmons), step-mom Brenda (Janney), and the latter’s young daughter.

Three pregnancy tests later, at the same drugstore, Juno accepts the fact that she is pregnant, and decides to deal with her unusual problem in a rational and responsible way. A visit to an uninviting clinic for “hasty abortion,” with pro-Life demonstrators outside, and the sight of a dozen hysterical women biting their nails, quickly results in Juno’s resolve to keep the baby.

But how does she inform her parents of her condition and decision to give the baby up for adoption Not to worry. This happens in one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, in which Juno and her old folks outshine each other with delicious lines, showing that older parents could be just as cool, bright, and understanding as their kids.

Rather than having an abortion, Juno decides to give birth, but hand the baby over for adoption to a pair of loving parents. Juno finds the perfect couple to adopt, the rich and appealing Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), who live in an antiseptic suburban neighborhood, the McMansion, about one-hour drive from Juno’s town. The yuppie couple, which at first seems to embody consumerism and nothing else, have placed an ad in the Pennysaver circular, “Right next to ‘exotic pets!'” says Juno’s best friend, the beautiful and bright Leah (Olivia Thirlby).

After the deal is sealed, in the presence of a matter-of-fact attorney (using new, cool legal lingo), Juno pays periodic visits to the Lorings’ household to show them ultra-sound photos of the baby and updates of her condition. We close one eye that, in a movieish way, the script arranges for Mark to always be by himself and for Vanessa to always arrive at a crucial moment iun Juno and Mark’s interaction.

Not neglecting the secondary characters, Cody then paints in insightful brushes the rest of the ensemble. Surfaces are deceptive: Despite being the “perfect couple” in the “perfect house,” all in white or pastel characters and with soothingly tasteful decorations, the Lorings marriage is full of tensions, both manifest and latent.

A successful music composer for commercials, still frustrated over his failed rock career, Mark seems distant, but gradually begins to warm up as soon as Juno is around. Initially bonding through music (he loves “The Carpenters,” while she worships other bands), they discuss the merits of schlock horror directors like Dario Argento and Herschell Gordon Lewis in a way that would please Tarantino. The closer friendship with Juno opens Mark’s eyes to what he has known for a long time, that he’s out of love with Vanessa and really not ready to be a father.

Can Juno maintain her relationship, not to mention crush on, with Bleeker after her unplanned pregnancy For most of the yarn, with the exception of one or two visits to his home, where Juno is not welcome by Bleeker’s chubby mom (“she always smells of soup”), he stays in the background, and is very much missed by us.

Juno observes with forlorn looks how Bleeker jogs with his buddies in the same yellow and purple uniform (yellow shorts get a good mileage and some sexually frank remarks in the picture). Things change, when Juno finds out about a planned weekend trip by Bleeker and company with another female classmate. Despite claiming to be cool, always reasonable and in control, the event arouses her jealousy and wrath, and she throws a feat in front of the utterly bewildered Bleeker.

Though mostly poignant and uproarious, the dialogue is occasionally too precious for its own good, with efforts at zingers. But for a first-time scripter, Cody (pseudonym for Brooke Busey-Hunt) proves to be exceptionally skillful and playful writer. None of the characters behave by-the-Hollywood-book, and some of the funniest lines are uttered in a totally unexpected way, truly out of the blue.

As noted, Page carries the entire film on with her frail frame, bright and alert eyes, and mostly big, fast mouth! In the hands of another actress, Juno might not have been as likable and sympathetic character. Page, who began acting as a child, fulfills the promise she had shown in the intense two-handler “Hard Candy,” asserting herself as one of the leading, most versatile actresses of her cohort, who can handle tons of dialogue with poise and style.

Also credibly cast is Cera, who’s sweet and sensitive in a harmless way. When Juno remarks how cool he is, without even trying, Bleeker says, “That’s not true. I actually work at it very hard!” Cera’s low-key charm and modest reserve are just right for his role as a school sports star that feels the sting from his pals and as Page’s love interest. Opposites attract: Page does the talking for both of them.

Jennifer Garner gives an honest, heartfelt performance as a woman desperately trying to be in control of her life and have the one thing she wants most: a baby. Though it might have felt necessary, the scene in which Vanessa runs into Juno at a mall, and talks directly to her belly in one of film’s few false moves.

Bateman is also impressive as the “perfect” husband, a middle-aged man conflicted about career and family, issues brought to the fore and made graver by the random encounter with Juno and his impending fatherhood. Simmons and Janney deliver hilarious lines with the deadpan that would please Noel Coward.

Jason Reitman, son of noted director Ivan, takes comedy seriously with rare understanding of the form’s requisites. However, in this sophomore effort, Reitman shows a less assured hand in his helming, evident in the unevenly paced picture, which should have moved at a brisker clip.

“Juno” is decidedly not a preachy “after-school-special” feature about teenage pregnancy, and it pokes fun at the language used by adults in describing teenagers’ homronal behavior, the hated sentence, “Have you been sexually active”

The film is saved from glibness by its new type of protag–call it postmodern heroine. Juno is clever, self-possessed, and self-contained, always knowing what to do and seldom losing her temper. Hence, upon meeting the highly emotional and excitable Lorings, Juno says: “Please, cant we just kick it old school I could just put the baby in a basket and send it your way. You know, like Moses in the reeds.

This and numerous other clever lines demonstrate that, ultimately, “Juno” is a writer’s project, one that captures vividly the quirks and flaws, fables and foibles, of all its characters, not just Juno, deviating from the long-held tradition of Hollywood youth movies that almost always side with the youths.

Among other things, “Juno” answers the question at the center of Bob Reiner’s comedy, “When Harry Met Sally”: Can men and women who are lovers also be close friends Or rather, can best friends become romantically involved

Credits

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 93 Minutes.

A Fox Searchlight release of a Mandate Pictures/Mr. Mudd production.
Produced by Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith, Mason Novick.
Executive producers, Joe Drake, Nathan Kahane, Daniel Dubiecki.
Co-producers, Jim Miller, Kelli Konop, Brad Van Arragon.
Directed by Jason Reitman.
Screenplay, Diablo Cody.
Camera: Eric Steelberg.
Editor, Dana E. Glauberman.
Music: Mateo Messina.
Songs, Kimya Dawson.
Music supervisors: Peter Afterman, Margaret Yen. Production designer: Steve Saklad.
Art directors: Michael Diner, Catherine Schroer.
Set decorator: Shane Vieau.
Costume designer: Monique Prudhomme.
Sound: James Kusan.

Cast

Juno MacGuff – Ellen Page
Paulie Bleeker – Michael Cera
Vanessa Loring – Jennifer Garner
Mark Loring – Jason Bateman
Brenda MacGuff – Allison Janney
Mac MacGuff – J.K. Simmons
Leah – Olivia Thirlby