I Didn't Think I'd Find You Perfect In So Many Ways
Juno / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | December 30, 2007 | Comments ()
I’m almost at a loss for words to describe just how good — how deeply and honestly good — Juno made me feel, and how its big bright beating heart is capable of delivering moments of genuine love and heartache and confusion and the general feeling of being left to the cold mercy of the universe in the hell that is growing up. Best of all, it’s great in the way the story plays out differently than you think it would. The screenplay from author and former stripper (yep) Diablo Cody is one of the greatest comedy scripts in years; there hasn’t been a writer this in love with the joy of putting words in characters’ mouths since Quentin Tarantino, and no one else has done believable low-level quirk since old-school Wes Anderson. There’s a moment in Juno when it becomes clear that the film will not walk the well-trodden ground of easy comedies that have come before it but instead aim for — and grandly achieve — something greater, and truer, and full of the shivering joy of life itself. And it’s a small moment, too. Juno (Ellen Page), a 16-year-old high school student who’s carved out a fiercely independent existence for herself, gets pregnant after sleeping with her best friend, the aptly named Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), a meek, softspoken outcast like Juno. Juno shows up on Paulie’s lawn one morning and tells him she’s pregnant, deadpanning that her situation typically leads to “you know … an infant.” and Paulie pauses for a few moments before asking, “What should we do?” His eyes show just the barest glint of tears for the rest of the conversation, and you can tell he’s working through too many emotions to count. He doesn’t freak out at her, and he doesn’t swear at her; he doesn’t even ask if it’s his. He just knows, and acknowledges it, and in that moment he cements everything he feels about Juno and everything the film itself will be: blunt, funny, and warmly accepting.
The film opens to strains of acoustic indie pop and a quasi-animated title, as if director Jason Reitman wants to make sure he gets enough cred off the bat. But the music isn’t a manipulative way to sell the story, just the best way to convey the vibe and atmosphere the characters live in. In other words, it isn’t just product placement when Juno name-drops The Moldy Peaches; this actually sounds like her music. The story starts to roll right away: Juno heads to the drugstore to pick up a pregnancy test, her third, to confirm her suspicions. From the beginning, Cody’s unique verbal patter and ear for stylized but believable slang give the film its own color palette. The clerk (Rainn Wilson) looks at her and says, “Your eggo is preggo, no doubt about it,” though Juno contends that the plus sign looks like a division sign, so she remains unconvinced. But the scene shifts abruptly from the rapid-fire banter to Juno’s unavoidable awkwardness at trying to urinate on the stick. Cody’s script deals with details like this head-on, and the emotional change from the hyperkinetic exchanges to the weird interlude of watching a young girl try to take a pregnancy test crops up time and again in the film. The screenplay has a fantastic way of deflating moments, whether it’s throwing jokes into a dramatic confrontation or poking holes in the humor by reminding the viewer what’s physically and emotionally at stake. It’s the same when Juno confesses her pregnancy to her father, Mac (J.K. Simmons), and stepmother, Bren (Allison Janney). They’re predictably upset at the news, but the atmosphere is never a hostile one, and by the end of the conversation they’ve come around to reluctantly supporting Juno. They never lash out at Juno or come close to ostracizing her; this simply isn’t that film.
It would be easy to compare Juno to this year’s other pregnancy-as-opportunity-
for-existential-enlightenment comedy, Knocked Up, but I’m reluctant to group the two together simply because it’s unfair to each film to judge it by the merits of the other. Judd Apatow’s comedy was primarily male-centered, while Reitman’s film revolves around the female, but they both deal with family dynamics and adult relationships in wildly different ways, most notably the fact that the hero of Knocked Up was a slacker who didn’t have his life together while the heroine of Juno is a smart girl whose life hasn’t begun yet. Apatow’s film was about what to make of your life in your 20s; Reitman’s film is about just trying to survive long enough to get there. But Juno does have a leg up when it comes to directness. When Juno discovers she’s pregnant, she calls her best friend, Leah (Olivia Thirlby), to tell her about it, and it’s not more than a few seconds before Leah asks Juno where she’s going to get it taken care of; Leah even says matter-of-factly that she’s called a clinic for another friend before. Juno responds that she’s already made the appointment herself at a place called Helping Women Now, since “you know, they’re helping women now.” But rather than change her mind before she gets there, Juno actually goes to the clinic and saunters up the counter, saying, “I’d like to procure a hasty abortion, please.” She changes her mind, though, because she just doesn’t want to go through with ending what will one day be a real person. The film isn’t a sermon on abortion rights, and it doesn’t take a side in the debate; this is just what Juno wants to do, so she does it.
The rest of the film follows Juno’s developing pregnancy and the relationship she forges with Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), a well-to-do yuppie couple looking to adopt. Mac takes Juno to meet Mark and Vanessa, and the scene bristles with life as these two different families start to feel each other out across the divide of age and social status. Juno is solidly middle-class, but Cody’s script never overplays the difference between her life and that of the couple she’s chosen to be the adoptive parents of her baby; it’s all in the subtext, or the way Juno and Mac seem dwarfed by the sterile white walls and modern furniture of the house in the neighborhood they can’t afford. Similarly, the screenplay’s overly developed cute-speak is slowly stripped away as the film unfolds, and it becomes clear that Juno’s cavalier manner of coasting through life and reinterpreting it in her own dialect is actually a defense mechanism she’s constructed to survive the perils of youth. As she gets closer to her due date and her relationships with Paulie, Mark, Vanessa, and her family grow more complicated and strained, her dialogue becomes less frequently peppered with her own lingo. Cody has written some wonderfully lengthy scenes in which characters don’t just butt heads but actually work through their differences, and you can almost see Juno maturing before your eyes.
Juno herself is uncompromising, strong, and whip-smart. She’s not afraid to come right out and say what no one else really will, and Page is never less than stunning in the role. She brings such dark charm and life to the character that she never for once appears to be acting. She never holds herself at a distance from the character or the story but gives in completely to it, and in doing so she winds up owning the role and defining the film in a way no other young actress could. Page is all of 20, but she’s already proven with Hard Candy that she can carry dramatic work. However, Juno is something else entirely, and Page imbues her character and the film with a brilliant spark of humanity. The Moldy Peaches’ “Anyone Else But You” plays such a prominent role in the film because Page was the one who told Reitman that the character of Juno would listen to that kind of music. She’s that completely in the zone here. Reitman has engineered bravura performances from his leads — Bateman is witty, low-key, and not the man you’d expect; Garner is neurotic and afraid of being alone — but it’s Page, with an assist from Cera, who really make the film shine. Cera’s work on “Arrested Development” and the recent Superbad does some of the heavy lifting as far as his casting is concerned: He doesn’t just look the part of the sensitive geek, but is best known for playing it so well. And true to form, Cera’s comedic moments are always dead on. But it’s the dramatic ones that really prove just how much Cera can do, and how much he’s never been given.
That’s the whole joy of Juno, the way comedy and drama become fused together to create something that’s serious and light, sad and hopeful all at once. It’s the way Vanessa asks Mac, “Do you ever feel like you were born to do something?” and he doesn’t miss a beat before replying, “Heating and air conditioning.” It’s almost impossible to make that joke work on the page, but hearing it delivered, you can feel in the innate happiness — the genuine goodness — running just below the surface. The film is full of those moments, the kind that make you want to embrace the characters; by the time “Anyone Else But You” returns to close the film, Reitman, Cody, Page, and everyone else have created something new and special and downright magical. Films like this one don’t come along often enough.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.