Ellen Page gives us a very honest interpretation of a young 16-year-old thrown into chaos when she finds out the only time she ends up having sex leads to pregnancy. So while the focus isn't so much on the occurrence of the act (they only use about 2 minutes of the opening for establishing it), the meat of the film lies with her relationship to a family wanting to adopt her future kid.
She's the typical teenager who's level of maturity rises above many adults, but underlying that still rests someone too out of their depth at that age. The themes here are pretty adult for a movie about someone as young as this.
The supporting cast of Michael Cera, Allison Janney, JK Simmons, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman add to the very "real" interpretation of emotions running through these characters.
It's a little short on time and breezes along at a brisk pace accompanied by some stellar and fun dialogue. The resolution here is a win-win for everyone involved, and Juno deserves to be recognized as one of our best.
(Full review TBD)
Even supporting characters with small roles have opportunities to utter great lines:
Vanessa Loring: How do I look?
Bren: Like a new mom. Scared shitless.
It's a feel good movie, that might make you a little nauseous with so much darling dialogue, but the odds are you'll love Juno. I did.
The downside to such an attitude, however, is that sometimes the controversy can overtake or overshadow the quality of a given film as a piece of art or entertainment. Whether it's a given filmmaker pushing the boundaries of taste with how much he or she chooses to show, or simply the inflamatory nature of the subject itself, a film can quickly accrue a reputation which is increasingly far removed from the content therein. We find ourselves in that position with Juno, which when stripped of all the arguments about the whole nine months has held up pretty well after a whole nine years.
When Juno was first released in America, much of the attention focussed around its treatment of abortion - an issue which, while far from being a moot point in Britain, doesn't attract the same gulf of opinion as you often find in the States. Both the pro-life and pro-choice communities were quick to defend and criticise the film; the former latched onto Juno's decision not to abort her baby, while the latter - like Lou Lemenick in The New York Post - argued that this was Juno's choice as a free agent with control over her own body. But whatever arguments you most gravitate towards, for whatever reasons, to come down firmly on one side or another is to miss the point.
It's tempting when you look at Diablo Cody's later work, like Jennifer's Body, to assume that she is primarily interested in female empowerment and that logically the film is therefore pro-choice. The argument goes that you cannot have a 'strong female character' (itself a dangerously loaded phrase) who isn't in control of her own actions. In fact Cody's writing, at least here, is far more ambivalent, reflecting the indecision and lack of grounding exhibited by the generation she writes for - a generation which picks and chooses the values which suit it at the time, and which struggles with any concept of absolutes or a higher moral standard.
From this point of view, Cody isn't nailing her colours to the mast so much as encouraging a discussion about what values we should uphold and how we should arrive at those decisions. While she has come out as pro-choice outside of her screenwriting, here she is immensely keen for her audience to think for themselves about this complicated, thorny issue. Her even-handedness has sometimes resulted in films which are conflicted, as was the case with Jennifer's Body; it was torn between being a smart horror film about the sexual power of woman and a scuzzy slice of tittilation for teenage boys. This is where the director comes in, with Jason Reitman displaying a steadier hand here than Karyn Kusama did, reining in Cody's few moments of indulgence and working hard with his compositions and editing to keep the characters focussed and likeable.
Juno is not so much a film about abortion as it is about the need to be responsible and mature. It shares with John Hughes' back catalogue, particularly The Breakfast Club, the notion that children are more able to figure out their problems than adults - or at least, are more willing to openly discuss them. Where a weaker film would have got bogged down in the awkward conversations between Ellen Page and Michael Cera, whose relationship is largely meandering, Cody and Reitman contrast the young lovers with a series of different adult relationships, all of which are dysfunctional in some way. Juno arrives at her decision not because of social attitudes or direct pressure, but from a rejection of the attitudes exhibited by the worst of these people.
The key dynamic in Juno is not between Juno and Paulie, but Juno and Mark, played with unusual reserve by Jason Bateman. Juno is drawn into liking Mark by their mutual taste in music, a frequent jumping-on point in teen dramas and coming-of-age films. She begins to build up a picture of him as a creative, fun-loving would-be parent, but this image is soon challenged by his misplaced ambition to become a successful musician. Mark's failure to put childish ways behind him and take on the responsibility that comes with fatherhood have a huge effect on Juno, leading her to question the loyalty of those she cares most about, and the role of men in her life as a whole.
But for all the best efforts of Bateman, very little of this would work without the great central performance of Ellen Page. Having made a name for herself in the terrific Hard Candy and made the best should could of her character in X-Men: The Last Stand, Juno sees her cement her status as one of the best actors under 30 working today. Her character manages to be hip and contemporary without feeling like a caricature of modern hipsterdom; she puts meat on the bones of Cody's language, bringing out the character's anxieties and indecisions without ever over-egging it. Her energy throughout provides a big lift for the other actors, particularly Cera, whose timid and uncertain performance is a million miles from his later work on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Credit must also go to Reitman for maintaining such a steady and naturalistic hand behind the camera. Unlike his father Ivan Reitman - still best known for directing Ghostbusters -, the comedy in Jason Reitman's films has never felt forced. You never get the sense that he is contriving a given situation, or rocking back and forth behind the camera praying that something funny will happen. He trusts the performers to get the best out of the material, and his role is to make them feel as comfortable as possible.
Juno also manages to retain an indie sheen on a visual level despite looking incredibly glossy and polished. Eric Steelberg has worked with Reitman for most of the latter's career, as well as lensing the overrated (500) Days of Summer two years after this. After the comic-book panel-style opening, which just screams "Sundance Film Festival", the visual style settles down nicely, with emphasis on earthy colours like greens, browns, ochres and deep reds. With such a zinger-laden script, the natural temptation would have been to make the visuals as off-kilter as, say, Ghost World, but Steelberg and editor Dana E. Glaubermann hold their nerve, to their credit and to the film's benefit.
Because the film feels so independently spirited despite its professional finish, the pace at which Juno unfolds is likely to divide audiences. It is a much better disciplined film than Little Miss Sunshine; as well as having a better plot from the outset, it avoids both repetition and unnecesary longeurs for the most part. But even at 96 minutes long, it doesn't feel like a brisk, well-refined 96 minutes, and you can sense both the actors and director being tempted to drag their heels at certain points when they really should be getting a move on. The entire scene with the pro-life campaigner is pretty unnecessary; the character is thinly written and Juno already understands what she's up against without it being shouted at her (and us).
The one weak link in Juno from a production point of view is some elements of the soundtrack. Many of the soundtrack suggestions for the film came from Page, and for the most part the artists and songs she has put forward are very fitting. The little snippets of punk rock that we get in the second act, including Patti Smith and Iggy Pop and the Stooges, gel really nicely with Juno as a character and counterpoint the incidental score by Mateo Messina. The real howler, however, is the inclusion of The Moldy Peaches, with 'Anyone Else But You' coming to epitomise the film. Without wishing to tar the whole anti-folk scene with the same brush, the song is atonal rubbish which cheapens the ending and makes the film in that moment far too self-conscious and shoegazing for its own good.
Juno is a very good second offering from Reitman which soars on both the maturity of its script and Page's gripping central performance. Unlike many films about serious social issues, it avoids being overly preachy or histrionic for the most part, giving its audience plenty to chew on and ponder while constantly making them chuckle. While it isn't perfect, it is a more rounded and satisfying work than Jennifer's Body, and is the yardstick against which all of Cody's subsequent output should be measured.