Juno MacGuff, the title character of Jason Reitman’s new film, is 16 and pregnant, but Juno could not be further from the kind of hand-wringing, moralizing melodrama that such a condition might suggest. Juno, played by the poised, frighteningly talented Ellen Page, is too odd and too smart to be either a case study or the object of leering disapproval. She assesses her problem, and weighs her response to it, with disconcerting sang-froid.
It’s not that Juno treats her pregnancy as a joke, but rather that in the sardonic spirit of the screenwriter, Diablo Cody, she can’t help finding humor in it. Tiny of frame and huge of belly, Juno utters wisecracks as if they were breathing exercises, referring to herself as “the cautionary whale.”
At first her sarcasm is bracing and also a bit jarring — “Hello, I’d like to procure a hasty abortion,” she says when she calls a women’s health clinic — but as Juno follows her from pregnancy test to delivery room (and hastily retreats from the prospect of abortion), it takes on surprising delicacy and emotional depth. The snappy one-liners are a brilliant distraction, Cody’s way of clearing your throat for the lump you’re likely to find there in the movie’s last scenes.
The first time I saw Juno, I was shocked to find myself tearing up at the end, since I’d spent the first 15 minutes or so gnashing my teeth and checking my watch. The passive-aggressive pseudo-folk songs, the self-consciously clever dialogue, the generic, instantly mockable suburban setting — if you can find Sundance on a map, you’ll swear you’ve been here before.
But Juno (which played at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, not the one in Park City, Utah) respects the idiosyncrasies of its characters rather than exaggerating them or holding them up for ridicule. And like Juno herself, the film outgrows its own mannerisms and defenses, evolving from a coy, knowing farce into a heartfelt, serious comedy.
A good deal of the credit for this goes to Page, a 20-year-old Canadian who is able to seem, in the space of a single scene, mature beyond her years and disarmingly childlike. The naivete that peeks through her flippant, wised-up facade is essential, since part of the movie’s point is that Juno is not quite as smart or as capable as she thinks she is.
It’s not simply that she has impulsive, unprotected sex with her friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), or that she decides, against the advice of parents and friends, to have the baby and give it up for adoption. These, indeed, are choices she is prepared to defend and to live with. Rather, Juno’s immaturity resides in her familiar adolescent assumption that she understands the world better than her elders do, and that she can finesse the unintended consequences of her decisions.
The grown-ups, at first, seem like familiar caricatures of adolescent-centered cinema: square, sad and clueless. But Juno’s father (J. K. Simmons) and step-mother (Allison Janney) turn out to be complicated, intelligent people, too, and not just because they are played by two of the best character actors around. Cody’s script and Reitman’s understated, observant direction allow the personalities of the characters to emerge slowly, and to change in credible and unpredictable ways.
This is especially true of Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), the baby’s potential adoptive parents. The audience’s initial impression of them, like Juno’s, is of stereotypically smug yuppies trapped in rickety conventions of heterosexual domesticity. Vanessa is uptight and materialistic, while Mark tends the guttering flame of his youthful hipness, watching cult horror movies and trading alternative-rock mix CDs with Juno.
Juno is, on the surface at least, a familiar type, surrounding herself with and expressing herself by means of kitschy consumer detritus (she calls the clinic on a hamburger phone) and pop cultural ephemera. She could be the hero of a Judd Apatow comedy (like, say, Cera, the boneless wonder of Superbad and a purely delightful presence here). Except, of course, that she’s female. Cody, Reitman and Page have conspired, intentionally or not, to produce a feminist, girl-powered rejoinder and complement to Knocked Up. Despite what most products of the Hollywood comedy boys’ club would have you believe, it is possible to possess both a uterus and a sense of humor.
Juno also shares with Knocked Up an underlying theme, a message that is not anti-abortion but rather pro-adulthood. It follows its heroine — and by the end she has earned that title — on a twisty path toward responsibility and greater self-understanding.
This is the course followed by most coming-of-age stories, though not many are so daring in their treatment of teenage pregnancy, which this film flirts with presenting not just as bearable but attractive. Kids, please! Heed the cautionary whale. But in the meantime, have a good time at Juno. Bring your parents, too.