There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The 16-year-old title character of Juno takes three tests before accepting that she’s pregnant “for shizz.” Juno is no slutty cheerleader or latchkey kid who doesn’t know better. Instead, she’s a wise-beyond-her-years tomboy whose defining characteristics are a love of ’70s punk, a limp ponytail, and gallons of Gilmore Girls–speed sassback. And the ’tude has her a bit conflicted about her babydaddy crush, a meek, Tic Tac–addicted track-clubber from whom no parent would think to shield his or her daughter.
Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) reacts to the situation by trying to hang herself with a licorice whip, then calls her best friend, Leah (Olivia Thirlby), to sardonically announce that she’s a suicide risk. Really, though, hers is a low-boil panic as they discuss the seemingly only reasonable option, abortion. The next day, Juno waits outside the house of her not-really-a-boyfriend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), to let him know, saying that she’s planning to “nip it in the bud, before it gets worse. Because they were talking about in health class how pregnancy can often lead to…an infant.” Paulie, standing in nerdy runner’s short-shorts and a headband, agrees to her plan, though he looks too shell-shocked and terrified to have fully absorbed the news.
Neither Juno the character nor Juno the film is perfect, but last year’s Little Miss Sunshine explosion indicates that Little Miss Expecting will be—correction, will continue to be—slobbered over anyway. There are plenty of fine reasons for that, chief among them Diablo Cody’s debut script. It’s hyperstylized in parts, yes—Cody, an instant “it” writer who already has several other projects in production, admits that she invents her own slang in the film. But her Minnesota-set screenplay also offers a sweet, unpredictable story and a heroine who’s a smarter and more admirable role model than the common sort of movie teen who, say, discovers her inner beauty with the help of a lot of makeup or becomes self-confident after tripping into a dreamboat’s arms.
Juno heads to an abortion clinic as planned, only slightly deterred by a picketing Asian classmate who chants, “All babies want to get borned” and tells Juno that her fetus probably already has fingernails. While filling out the requisite paperwork, fingernails are suddenly all Juno can see. So she bolts, complaining to Leah that the receptionist was weird, the magazines had water stains, and that maybe she could give the baby away “to someone who totally needs it, like a woman with a bum ovary, or a couple of nice lesbos.” Leah, who’s a cheerleader but one who prefers bearded professors to chiseled jocks, suggests they search the Penny Saver. And that’s where Juno finds Vanessa and Mark (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), a barren upper-middle-class couple who live in a nearby wealthy suburb. Vanessa is an A-type whose wardrobe is as crisp and immaculate as her huge, spacious home. She’s pleasant enough, but Juno really bonds with Mark, a professional composer whose inner child is still too preoccupied with thoughts of rock stardom to be ready to take on a real baby. A closed adoption is arranged.
Director Jason Reitman repeats the same approach to levity that he used in 2005’s Thank You for Smoking; for instance, he’ll occasionally interrupt the narrative with surrealistic visuals to illustrate Juno’s voiceover. His only misstep, and it’s just a quibble, is adding preciousness, particularly with the quivering-animation opening credits and a soundtrack that goes a bit too often to the Moldy Peaches’ simple, nearly spoken-word odes to love and friendship and, probably, puppies. Sometimes the tunes feel just right, but combined with the film’s already hipper-than-thou base aesthetic, the package teeters on cloying.
Juno ultimately rescues itself from too-cool damnation, though. The cast is terrifically understated: Page follows her breakthrough performance in 2005’s Hard Candy with another impressive turn, delivering even Cody’s cleverest one-liners naturally and, above all, making you believe that a teen who references Soupy Sales in 2007 could actually exist. Cera pretty much re-creates his George-Michael Bluth character from Arrested Development, but this docile naiveté is exactly what’s called for, and Garner has never been more radiant or subtle; a moment in which Vanessa tries to feel the baby kicking is a marvel of expression. Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons are wryly entertaining as Juno’s father and stepmom as well.
But even a great ensemble wouldn’t be able to save a faulty script, and Cody is careful to make sure that, for instance, Juno doesn’t always say the right thing (in one case, a too-quick, unthinking retort is downright cruel) and that the story goes in directions you can’t guess from the opening chapters. Juno’s buzz will likely become tiring in the coming months, but there’s no denying that the film itself is remarkably fresh.