Thursday, December 20, 2007

So long as Juno and I know...

Getting unexpectedly pregnant after having sex for the first time with a buddy at the age of 16 is generally sort of a drag, but for the titular hipster heroine of Juno, played with spunky verve by Haligonian wunderkind Ellen Page, it’s not quite the bad deal you might expect. Perhaps its because something about her world just seems a little more fun and cozy than the one the rest of us live in.

No one seems to mind when Juno re-creates a rumpus room on somebody’s front lawn. Her local druggist speaks in alliteration-heavy aphorisms. Her ex-army dad and doggie-crazed step-mom (the appealing pairing of JK Simmons and Alison Janney) don’t even get pissed off when Juno tells them she’s got a bun in the oven. There’s a girl from school protesting against abortion outside the clinic Juno visits, but even she just seems kinda huggable, even informative. Plus, cute little indie rock songs seems to be playing everywhere Juno goes. The film almost makes you want to run out and get pregnant.

Juno was directed by Montreal-born Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking), who has a nice feeling for pace and humour, a catchy way of framing the Vancouver-as-generic-US-city locations, and, it would seem, an easy way with actors. The film has a winsome attitude that’s only slightly soured by Reitman’s excess of eagerness to tear pages from Wes Anderson or even Jared Hess’s baroque scrapbooks, flooding each scene with kitschy costumes and paraphernalia and offbeat pop culture references. There’s even a Kinks song. The approach works well enough for the material, but Reitman’s not going to win any awards for originality.

More curiously, Juno was written by one Diablo Cody. If that name sounds like it belongs to an ex-stripper, you’d be on the right track. If it sounds like it belongs to a pretty clever ex-stripper, you’d be batting a 1000. If anything, Juno values cleverness above all else, giving the verbally able Page a steady stream of one-liners only rarely punctuated by something not deep-fried in irony. With this, her first produced screenplay, Cody seems to trust her cheek more than her heart, but there is ultimately a significant amount of subtext here that helps raise the film up above your average teen movie flotsam.

After deciding, in a commendably non-didactic scene, that abortion just isn’t for her, Juno lands upon an ad in the local Pennysaver posted by Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), a youngish, upper middle-class couple looking for a kid. Juno and her dad pay a visit to the couple’s expansive suburban home and quickly surmises that while her unborn child will probably have to battle against suffocating décor, love and safety are almost ensured. It’s equally clear however that trouble is brewing in this beige carpeted paradise: Mark is stifling an undying love for horror flicks and punk rock, winning points with Juno but displeasing the studiously adult (i.e.: emasculating) Vanessa.

With this crucial element of Mark and Vanessa, Juno begins to reveal the real smarts that underline its sass. The film conveys a decidedly inclusive inclination toward families of all types and in all states. Juno isn’t sure yet quite how she feels about the soft-spoken father of her baby-in-the-making (Superbad’s Michael Cera –yet another Canuck!), but she’s beginning to ask serious questions about the elusive nature of love and the deeper value of trust and support. As the plot thickens, she, and we, can see that love, trust and support can be lost and found in expected places, and one of the real pleasures of Cody’s story lies in the way it doesn’t let any single major character remain a mere type when called upon to make important decisions.

How well anything in the film comes across ultimately comes down to Page’s performance, and, like the film as a whole, it’s a piece of work that, at its best, is characterized by its distinctive way of catching you off guard. Though still only 20 and elfin, Page has been slated as the next big thing for a little while now. The web-dating sicko thriller Hard Candy was meant to be her breakthrough, but she’s far better served by Juno. She has a terrifically breezy way with the dialogue and never forces emotion, even when the script seems to demand it of her. The performance of the year? Not quite. The first major stop on a road to a brilliant career? Very likely.

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