Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 12 November 2007
Source Fox Searchlight 35mm print
Categories The Times BFI 51st London Film Festival
In 1992 it was Christopher Columbus. In 1997 it was giant meteors. In 2007 it is, bizarrely, unwanted pregnancies, the latest hot cinematic vogue packing them in across the civilised world. Following the cheerful Knocked Up and distinctly less cheerful but Palme D’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (and ahead of Tina Fay’s forthcoming Baby Mama), the world’s screens are experiencing a baby boom not seen since, well, that awful Diane Keaton movie.
The latest in this cresting mini-wave is Jason Reitman’s Juno, which distinguishes itself by dealing with the thorny topic from a teenage perspective. Ellen Page puts in a striking performance as the eponymous high schooler, who seduces her best friend and bandmate Paulie Bleeker one bored afternoon. But when the inevitable occurs, Juno is too freaked out by the idea of abortion and decides to opt for adoption, finding a seemingly charming, wealthy young couple in the Pennysaver and offering up her offspring. But the couple in question, Mike and Vanessa, are not so stable as they first appear, and with Juno’s unwitting intervention the cracks in their marriage begin to widen.
It’s a far cry from her debut appearance in last year’s overblown, self-serious Hard Candy, but Juno proves conclusively what the earlier film only suggested: Ellen Page can carry a movie. Appearing in almost every scene, she is an effortlessly charming, magnetic performer, as comfortable with the physical comedy of awkwardness which pregnancy inevitably invites as with the pithy verbal sparring that defines her character. And Juno is a great central character, fearless and na√É¬Øve but still self conscious, secure in her own self built universe but wary of anything that lies outside it, that can’t be processed and absorbed into her unique worldview.
In fact, from a cast and character standpoint, Juno is all but flawless. J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney are note perfect as the horrified but supportive parents, steering Juno through the worst while still reprimanding her for her impulsiveness. As the hapless Paulie, Michael Cera gives essentially the same performance he gave in Superbad – the nerdy but confident high schooler with a heart of gold – but it’s a solid role, and he makes it his own. More complex and intriguing are the prospective adopters, played by Patrick Bateman and Jennifer Garner. Mike’s midlife crisis restlessness feels painfully real, as does his wife’s tearful incomprehension, her realisation that she’s losing her husband just as she’s gaining a baby. Their story is the most affecting in the film, and the most satisfactorily developed.
Which only serves to highlight serious difficulties in other areas. The script, by infamous blogger Diablo Cody, is rich with character insight and great comic moments: in an already banner year for American comedy, Juno distinguishes itself with ease, with barely a gag out of place. But on a structural level the film is more problematic. At 92 minutes it feels a few scenes too short, and the final act dashes to wrap up all the plot threads before the impending blessed event. Most short changed by this is Cera’s Bleeker, whose love for Juno is cruelly underexplored. Their storyline has a happy ending – how couldn’t it? – but the whole thing feels rushed and unsatisfying. Likewise many of the other supporting players, wonderful characters who never get the opportunity to breathe.
The film is flawed in other areas. Cody is clearly an old school punk and noise fan, and her characters repeatedly namedrop bands like the Stooges, Sonic Youth and the Melvins. Reitman, on the other hand, has rather softer tastes, overloading the film with cutesy, grating Phoebe-esque freak folk by the likes of Kimya Dawson. This serves to highlight a wider gulf between script and director—Cody is clearly aiming for something sweet but hard hitting, focussing on the issues while still charming the pants off her audience. Reitman, on the other hand, presumably with studio backing, thinks he’s making a much kinder film, opening with a kitschy, vaguely annoying animated sequence and closing with the two leads singing The Moldy Peaches to one another on a sunny, tree lined street.
And, like Knocked Up before it (but perhaps less forgivably given the age of its protagonist), Juno fails to adequately connect with the issues. The film demands to be read as anti-abortion: Juno’s brief experience at the clinic is an unerringly awful one, and the filmmakers seem far more sympathetic to the lone protestor outside. It could even be viewed as anti-contraception: we never learn whether Juno took precautions herself, and the only treatment of the issue in the script is distinctly unfavourable. The pregnancy itself is a fairly easy, untroubling affair, with little of the usual vomiting and physical trauma—even the birth itself seems relatively painless, particularly in comparison with that startling sequence in Knocked Up. It’s hard to decipher exactly what a teenage audience will take away from Juno, and there’s certainly nothing in the pregnancy plotline to offend even the most hardened Christian: Janney’s character is even a believer herself, and the film certainly paints a pretty dour picture of sex before marriage. It could be argued that this is Reitman and the studio covering their backs, but if so, why include all the swearing, divorce and general bad behaviour? It all feels slightly weird, some kind of subversive plot to indoctrinate a nation’s youth in the coolest, most enjoyably way possible.
Because Juno is, if nothing else, hugely likeable. It’s warm, witty, sharp and intelligent, populated by those amazing characters and wonderful actors effortlessly hitting their stride. And Juno herself if one of the most memorable leading ladies of recent years, a real one-off. If only one could shake the spooky feeling that she’s being used.
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