When I first saw Jason Reitman’s Juno, I liked it a lot—maybe four-stars worth of a lot. When I watched it a second time, I loved it—five-stars worth. Positioned as this year’s Little Miss Sunshine (2006), marketed as a “quirky comedy” with a big to-do over the fact that first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody (born Brook Busey) is a former stripper, Juno came equipped with a lot to live up to—or to live down, depending on your outlook.
The fact is that it’s a much better movie than Little Miss Sunshine, and while Diablo Cody’s screenplay should not be sold short, so much of what makes Juno work lies in the direction and the playing of that screenplay. Without that, Juno would in fact be this year’s Little Miss Sunshine—an agreeable little movie that has trouble standing up to multiple viewings. It would be the forced quirk-a-thon the trailer indicates—which pays way too much attention to the blessedly minor contribution of Rainn Wilson.
Consider just a single scene from the film, the one in which Juno (Ellen Page, X-Men: The Last Stand) tells her father (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man 3) and stepmother (Allison Janney, Hairspray) that she’s pregnant. It’s a beautifully written piece of comedy, but it’s a beautifully played, directed and edited piece of very human comedy-drama. The script’s easy repartee is made believably awkward, and the somewhat glib exchange between father and daughter—“I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when”/“I really don’t know what kind of girl I am”—becomes a truly moving insight into the outwardly tough Juno, thanks to the long pause between his remark and her response, the careful shot breakdown and the remarkable performances of both Page and Simmons. Nothing that’s said here has any particular weight, but the presentation conveys his disappointment, her pain over that disappointment and the fear and insecurity Juno’s clever use of words tends to mask.
The story of a girl who gets pregnant by her not-exactly boyfriend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera, Superbad), and decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption could have gone in any number of bad directions, but Juno always manages to avoid them. The word “quirky” has become so overused that it’s threatening to mean nothing (is there a single indie comedy that isn’t described that way?). As a result, I think the word “eccentric” is nearer the mark in describing Juno. The characters and their takes on the situation are clearly eccentric.
For example, Juno decides to have the baby for reasons she probably can’t explain even to herself, but which are grounded in the overall atmosphere of the clinic and the lackadaisical attitude of the clinic’s receptionist (Emily Perkins, She’s the Man) who tries to give Juno a boysenberry-scented condom (“My boyfriend uses them every time we have intercourse—they make his junk smell like pie”). But the offhand information that her baby already has fingernails—according to the lone protester (Valerie Tian, 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer) outside the clinic—also seems to inform her decision. (This tidbit of knowledge seems to fascinate her stepmother, too.) The reasoning process is clearly personal—and just as clearly filtered through some distinctly unusual worldviews.
The same attitude pervades Juno’s encounters with the yuppie couple she opts to give the baby to, Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner). There’s a strange complexity to the relationship that springs up between Juno and Mark, who is much more like Juno than he’s like his wife. The film has the wit to explore this without taking the idea to a level that could have been ick-making. (If the movie has a single flaw, though, it lies in the somewhat inconclusive fate of Mark, who is one of its more interesting characters.) What’s remarkable is the way in which all the characters have their reasons, and they all have their hopes, dreams and fears—none of which are grounded in traditional expectations. At the same time, the eccentricities of the various viewpoints never feel contrived or manufactured for pure quirk value.
It all seems real. And it’s the magic of the film’s reality and its underlying wisdom that makes it such a worthwhile experience, such a moving and humanly funny work. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and language.