Doane Gregory/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Jason Reitman/United States 2007

Juno marks the debut of screenwriter Diablo Cody, erstwhile blogger extraordinaire, the second feature by director Jason Reitman and the arrival of an enthralling cinematic presence in Ellen Page, its up and coming star. No wonder that it provides such a fresh and perceptive take on some old cinematic standards, or that it features an entire cast of characters that speak, act, think and feel with total authenticity. It subverts the clich├ęd notions of normalcy and maturity promulgated in most high school set comedies, and presents a unique view of the teenage pregnancy experience.

Page plays the title character, a sardonic 16-year-old with an affinity for Patti Smith, the films of Dario Argento and sweater vests. She lives with her father Mac (J.K. Simmons), stepmother Bren (Allison Janney) and half-sister Liberty Bell in the Minneapolis suburbs, spending the bulk of her time with best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) and secretly pining over Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). Or perhaps not so secretly, as she learns in the opening scene that a romantic, alcohol induced hookup between the two has led to the dreaded plus sign on a pregnancy test. The rest of the picture, spanning the three seasons of her labor cycle, chronicles the role that pregnancy plays in the lives of the principle figures, which also include Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), the deceptively happy couple with whom Juno enters into an adoption arrangement.

Of all that stands out about the film, including Reitman’s assured direction, which belies his relative inexperience and Cody’s sharp and moving script, nothing resonates quite so much as the uniformly strong performances. Perhaps no ensemble this year has been so splendidly in sync, while few movies in recent memory have presented such a wealth of richly defined characters. It stars with Page, who resists the obvious temptation of taking Juno straight into cynical hipster territory. She demonstrates an affinity for Cody’s fast paced, intelligent dialogue and can engage in verbal combat with the best of them. Yet she proves herself a master of interior expression, drawing out the scared young girl inside the wisecracking exterior by naturally weaving through the character’s strong and conflicting emotions. She benefits from a screenplay that understands the insecurity so often at the heart of sarcastic rebellious teenage behavior, but she tells us more about Juno in her reaction shots than words ever could.

Most of all, the screenwriter deserves credit for reworking the standard cinematic notion of a mature, normal life. An ordinary picture set within this milieu would characterize Juno as something of a pariah for her mistake, an impression that would be amplified by her broken family (mom abandoned her at a young age), lower-middle-class surroundings and unconventional attitude. At the same time the Lorings, with their idyllic suburban home and its studio portraits lining the wall adjacent to a swirling staircase, could be regarded as the epitome of American success and comfort. Cody’s screenplay reveals the opposite to be true: Juno’s pregnancy serves as the catalyst that reveals her life to in fact be happier and more balanced than the Lorings, in spite of the exteriors. At the same time, it presents us with a teenager able to make significant, well thought out life decisions and an adult in Mark utterly unable to do the same.

Reitman’s direction reaffirms what Thank You for Smoking made clear: that rather than another case of nepotism, his rise to filmmaking prominence marks the arrival of a major talent. He demonstrates an auteur’s control over the material, negotiating the precarious balance between the more upbeat moments and the picture’s heartfelt, at times melancholy undertone. The movie looks great, featuring an apt blend of quirky visual motifs (like the ubiquitous cross country team running through the frame) and straightforward, drawn back direction that emphasizes the characters. The filmmaker knows when the camera should move, the degree to which it should and the appropriate distance from which it should be placed to derive maximum emotional impact. He proves himself the ideal director for a movie with such a big heart and open mind, and a cast that’s second to none.

© 2007 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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