Juno Lives Up to the Hype at the Starz Denver Film Festival

The folks behind the 30th annual Starz Denver Film Festival didn’t discover Juno, the film at the center of the bash’s November 10 “Big Night” presentation at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. The indie previously received major plaudits at festivals in Rome and Hollywood, and the buzz around its screenwriter, Diablo Cody, has already earned her a major profile in that least underground of movie-touting publications, Entertainment Weekly. Yet such distinctions faded into insignificance as soon as the movie began unspooling.

I attended the screening with my fourteen-year-old daughters, Lora and Ellie, under the theory that a flick about a pregnant high schooler might engage them more than a video in Teen Choices class – but little did I know that they’d both be traumatized before we got through the door by the demand that we check our cell phones before entering, in order to prevent unauthorized recording. How the hell were they going to survive without the ability to text for several hours? Luckily, there was plenty to distract them at the Ellie – a moniker that my own Ellie interpreted as a personal tribute. The crowd was extremely tony, with tuxedoes and little black dresses being the order of the day, and since my press laminate won us access to the venue’s high-rent section, we had plenty of opportunities to recognize how underdressed we were. At one point, Ellie said she wanted to stand up and ask how many attendees were middle class. She predicted that about four people would raise their hands – and, of course, there were three of us…

Juno’s director, Jason Reitman (son of Ghostbusters helmer Ivan Reitman), seemed to have similar thoughts about the throng. After an introduction by Britta Erickson, earning major spotlight time as part of her impending elevation to director of festivals following the semi-retirement of Ron Henderson, he urged tux wearers to loosen the top button of their dress shirts and remember they were there to watch a comedy.

He needn’t have worried. The crowd tuned to the proper wavelength immediately – a tribute to Reitman’s direction, which proved much more confident and assured than on 2005’s promising but flawed Thank You For Smoking, not to mention a star-making performance by Ellen Page as Juno and Cody’s tremendously ripe dialogue. At first, her words seemed to have a bit too much sitcom in them: Every character spoke in ultra-clever, pop-culturally astute bon mots – even Juno’s father, played by J.K. Simmons, who specialized in heating and air conditioning, not polishing routines for Conan O’Brien. In the end, though, the freshness of her voice and the consistency of her tone established its own charming universe – one in which Michael Cera, continuing his roll after Superbad, proves potent in more ways than one, Jennifer Garner creates a nuanced character, Jason Bateman convinces in a part that starts out sympathetic and winds up creepy, and Kimya Dawson, the beguiling singer-songwriter and Moldy Peaches alum who provides much of Juno’s score, finds a forum that perfectly utliizes her skill at blending the childlike and the flirty.

During a Q&A after the screening, Reitman mentioned that Cody had made her name as a blogger, but left out her background as an exotic dancer – experience that’s no doubt served her well during her Hollywood foray to date, since producers and studio executives have more in common with leering strip club regulars holding fistfuls of dollar bills than they’d care to admit. Nonetheless, he’s smart enough to want their association to continue. Erickson mentioned that the two of them have another project in the planning stages – a declaration that left him hemming and hawing, since the collab hasn’t been officially announced yet.

Having Cody in his corner is good news for Reitman, since the Denver crowd was absolutely entranced by Juno, my daughters included. Ellie declared the protagonist to be her new hero, and Lora made me pledge to buy the movie on DVD the second it hits stores, even though it won’t even reach the nation’s theaters for several more weeks. It’ll be a pleasure to keep that promise. – Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts