Juno marks the second film for director Jason Reitman and the first for screenwriter Diablo Cody, author of the Pussy Ranch blog, which, surprisingly, has very little to do with baby kittens.
At first Juno threatens to choke on its own catchphrases — like when The Office's Rainn Wilson, cameoing as a store clerk, tells sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) that her positive pregnancy test is "one doodle that can't be undid, home skillet." Or when Olivia Thirlby, as Juno's best cheerleading pal Leah, uses "Phuket, Thailand" as an expletive. Or when Juno describes the perfect adoptive parents as a "cool graphic designer, mid-thirties, with a cool Asian girlfriend who totally rocks the bass — but I don't want to be too particular." Our heroine also digs McSweeney's, the Stooges and Dario Argento's Suspiria. Arch? Argh, yes.
But after a little while, the movie calms down and finds its center — no, its heart, which already sets it apart from the cutesy-quirky realm of Wes Anderson, for whom ticks and affectations have replaced deliberation and emotion. By the end, it's unexpectedly moving without ever once trolling for crocodile tears. It's a sneak attack.
Juno begins to soar when Juno tells her father, Mac (J.K. Simmons), and stepmother, Bren (Allison Janney), that she's pregnant. She thought about getting an abortion, but couldn't do it — the clinic was too drab, its patients too hopeless, its receptionist too thoughtless. She doesn't decide to have the kid to make a statement; she just can't be bothered to stick it out in the most depressing waiting room on earth. So Juno spills it to her folks, who'd hoped that, oh, maybe their little girl was on drugs or had been popped for a DWI.
It takes all of two seconds before they come around. Mac can't believe that nebbishy high-school track star Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) is the dad: "Didn't think he had it in him." And Bren, a nail-salon tech, wants Juno on prenatal vitamins pronto: "They do great things for your nails, which is a plus." That one living-room scene, so low-key (to the point where it almost seems normal) and thoughtful and sweet and simple, comes at exactly the right moment. Just when it feels as though Reitman and Cody are losing their wrestling match with the tone and texture, just when it feels like Juno's about to wink and nudge itself off the screen, it coalesces into a perfect movie about responsibility, maturity and unconditional love.
Juno decides to have the child and give it to a couple desperate for a baby — in this case, Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner). Vanessa especially wants a child, and Garner delivers an unexpectedly poignant performance. For a long while, we don't know what to make of Vanessa. Cody and Reitman portray her initially as coldly WASP-perfect, all pearls and pleats, no sense of humor. There's something even a little creepy about the Lorings, who've placed their baby-wanted ad in the Penny Saver. They're the Stepford Couple in a prefab McMansion a million miles from the warm embrace of the cluttered, middle-class MacGuff household.
It seems Mark and Juno are kindred spirits, rockers and horror-film fans bound by their love of gore and guitars. They even fall in love a little bit to where, yeah, it's almost creepy. But Mark's more boy than man, a Cobain wannabe in dirty tees — and a poor substitute for Paulie, already more of a man than Mark. Vanessa's the Loring to whom Juno's really bound, and Garner conveys a vast, lonely ache with just a heartbreaking wince when Juno points to her own swelling belly and says, "You're lucky it's not you."
I've seen Juno three times, and it only gets better with each viewing. The performances are so subtle that it takes a while to notice how terrific they are. After three movies spent barking at Peter Parker from beneath a comic-book flat top, Simmons, especially, is a revelation. And Page, channeling Linda Cardellini's character in Freaks and Geeks, finds her way into — and way past — those early lines, burrowing deep into Juno's skin till she finds her soul.
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