Reitman#039;s Juno: Teen pregnancy done right

by Beacon Staff • December 5, 2007

In a typically cheery middle class home, we are introduced to young Juno MacGuff.,Juno is Knocked Up without crass ejaculation jokes. While both are witty contemporary comedies about an unexpected pregnancy, Juno is a far more mature and well-rounded movie, even if its pregnant protagonist is a 16-year-old girl.

In a typically cheery middle class home, we are introduced to young Juno MacGuff. She's a guitar-playing high school misfit who realizes via three pregnancy tests that she is, in fact, pregnant. The father is Paulie Bleeker (a hilarious Michael Cera), a track-running geek who, as a daily ritual, lathers deodorant on his thighs before stepping out the door. Obviously, the two are in no way ready to raise a child. However, after Juno sits anxiously in the waiting room of an abortion clinic, she quickly decides that, ready or not, she's going to go through with it and have her baby.

Her decision, like Alison's in Knocked Up, is never made clear to the audience, other than the fact that having the baby would make the rest of the movie much more interesting than if she simply had the abortion called. However, it's important to understand why Juno would rather subject herself to nine months of small-town humiliation in order to simply give her child up for adoption. This plot development, along with a handful of others, is never fully realized.

In one of the film's many comical family confrontations, Juno comes clean to her dad Mac (J.K. Simmons) and stepmom Bren (Allison Janney), after telling them that they need to prepare for some terrible news. Once told, Bren, flabbergasted, turns to Mac and says, "Oh boy. I was hoping she got expelled or into hard drugs. Anything but this."

However, Juno would rather die than raise the baby herself, especially considering the child-like ineptitude of Paulie who, after hearing the news, looks prepared to jump off a 40-story building.

So with hast she seeks out Vanessa and Mark (played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) an affluent and childless couple listed in the Penny Saver and agrees to let them adopt her baby.

What ensues is a predictable and, at times, uninspired coming-of-age plotline that is nevertheless saved by screenwriter Diablo Cody's endlessly inventive dialogue. Whereas the pivotal relationships in Juno sometimes feel strained, especially in the clicheacute;d high-powered-woman vs. lazy guitar-man dynamic between Garner and Bateman, the film's firecracker dialogue patches up the plot problems with its sheer sophistication and spot-on comic timing.

Line after line flies by with ferocious and gut-busting finesse, sometimes so fast and with such rapidity that it's a wonder the actors even have time to compute what they're saying. However, Juno's dialogue also manages to breathe life into scenes, allowing its characters a generous array of humor and heartbreak, while usually grounding itself in reality.

When Juno, for instance, meets the adoptive couple for the first time, she looks at them quizzically and asks, "Why don't you just adopt a baby from China? I hear they give those things away like free iPods." Her blunt and occasionally arrogant choice of words makes for the type of bright and unapologetically clever comedy that is so rare in films nowadays. But more than just clever, Cody's script is engaging and it challenges its audience to focus in on its material, even if the script sometimes becomes too manic and scatter-brained for its own good.

Kudos are in order for Jason Reitman who directs the film in a way that doesn't distract from Cody's words. Although overly conventional in parts, again due to Bateman and Garner's poorly conceived subplot, Reitman proves once more in Juno, as he did with Thank You for Smoking, that the screenplay is as important an element to a film as anything else. Like Cody, his presence in Hollywood is vital in keeping intelligent comedies alive and well, especially in a genre teeming with Ben Stiller and Jon Heder fiascos.

Still, however creative Cody's dialogue may be, Juno's narrative arch is too stilted at times and, as a result, the film's dramatic moments don't always feel genuine. Juno's brief but incredibly awkward flirtation with Mark feels more shocking than believable. This is also be because Cody gets swept away in her own creative voice, which at times limits the emotional range needed in the darker portions of the story. Nonetheless, dwelling on the film's shortcomings is to ignore the many other aspects that make Juno such an engaging and enjoyable experience.

The actors bring an overwhelming amount of talent and nuance to their roles and help pull the film out of its occasional storytelling slumps. J.K. Simmons and especially Allison Janney are uproarious as Juno's straight-talking parents. The scene in which Janney rips apart an ultrasound assistant is a fantastic moment of verbal annihilation.

However, it is impossible to say anything good about the film's performances without mentioning the great Ellen Page. The 20-year-old actress, who was most recently seen in the indie film Hard Candy, gives a high-strung, career-making performance as Juno MacGuff. With her glaring brown eyes and her fierce intelligence, Page not only masters Cody's dialogue but also uses it to mold and shape one of this year's most exhausting but nevertheless engaging screen characters. She conveys a massive range of emotions beautifully, all the while cracking joke after joke with unusually perceptive comic timing. It's a spot-on and fully -realized performance that will indubitably be remembered come awards time.

But before we go into that crazy time of year where films get stamped and stapled with Academy Award labels (Juno could easily pull off a Little Miss Sunshine in terms of nods), let us step back and call Juno what it is: a flawed but nevertheless welcoming comedy that dares to bring intelligence back into the cinemas.