Wednesday, February 15, 2012

100 Movies - No. 47: Juno

47. Juno (2007)
Comedy, Drama, Romance, 96 minutes
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman and J. K. Simmons

Director Jason Reitman was also responsible for Up in the Air in 2009, which, along with Juno, dealt with subjects in which I had very little interest. But Reitman’s mix of drama and comedy works well in both movies and the witty dialogue drives both.

Juno is funny throughout, but it’s never dumb comedy and it never resorts to gross humor. The story works because we care about the characters and their one-liners fit both their personality and the situation. In short, it feels real. Many comedies assault the viewer with a stream of contrived jokes and it falls flat (for me at least).

Juno MacGuff (Page) is 16 and newly-pregnant. We see a flashback showing how it happened and who the father is. It turns out to be one of her best friends, Paulie Bleeker (Cera). After telling him, she decides that an abortion is the best course of action, but she changes her mind following a visit to the clinic. She’s a smart girl and feels capable of making her own decisions, eventually deciding that adoption may be the best thing for her and the baby.

She finds potential parents in an ad and then has the task of telling her father (Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney) that she’s pregnant. This is where the movie first defies our expectations. Instead of anger and shock, her parents are calm and accepting. They even joke about the situation when she reveals the father. It’s so refreshing to see supportive parents rather than the usual stereotypes.

Her father wants to go with her to meet the prospective foster parents, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Bateman). Vanessa desperately wants a baby and is skeptical that Juno will honor the agreement, while Mark is more relaxed about everything. He bonds with Juno when she sees his guitar and they end up singing together.

Juno keeps in touch with the couple and forms a friendship with Mark because of their common love of music and movies. I particularly like this sequence because I’m passionate about both subjects and know the power of sharing and talking about such things. It’s the main reason that I write about movies. Mark introduces her to Sonic Youth (my favorite band) and Juno shares some of her classic rock and punk albums. It seems that the two might enter into a more serious relationship.

Her stepmother teaches her about food supplements and defends Juno when she goes to the hospital and is insulted by the ultrasound technician. It’s further evidence that she’ll be supported in her choices all the way.

Bleeker's face lights up every time he sees Juno. Cera plays the part well and doesn’t go over the top. It’s a quiet and understated performance, but he makes it clear that she’s special to him. She suggests that he date a different girl, but is angry when he does. The two have a showdown and it again becomes clear that they really feel something for each other.

There’s a touching scene in the shopping mall where Juno encounters Vanessa and sees her playing with a little girl. We see Juno forming the opinion that Vanessa will make a good mother. The scene develops with a meeting between the two in which Vanessa talks to Juno’s belly.

Her arrangement with Vanessa and Mark is threatened by one occurrence and we wonder how everything will turn out. I won’t reveal that here, but it’s a good resolution.

Another great scene involves a chat between father and daughter. It’s a potentially life-changing talk played perfectly by Page and Simmons. It sets into motion events that shape Juno’s immediate future. Simmons is so talented. If I were a writer/director, one of the first things I would do is create a starring role for Simmons. He’s made his mark with supporting roles, but has so much more to offer.

As for Page, what a remarkable talent. She carried such films as Whip It and Hard Candy, and had a major supporting role in Inception. At 24, she has most of her career ahead of her and I’m excited to see how she develops. She’s already capable of showing so much emotion and her comic timing is perfect. It will be fun to see what happens over the next decade.

One important component of the movie is the soundtrack. Kimya Dawson contributes nine of the songs in the film and they fit the mood and Juno’s character perfectly. There’s a well-placed Kinks song and bands such as Cat Power and Belle & Sebastian also fit the mood. The highlight is Sonic Youth covering the Carpenters’ Superstar, and it’s an important part of the plot.

Juno isn’t a film that will appeal to everyone. Some argue that the dialogue isn’t realistic, but I found it so. Who is it aimed at? Teens? Women? Pregnant girls? Many will write it off as falling into one of those categories. That would be a shame because it has a lot more to offer. I’m a 49-year-old man and I found it utterly charming, refreshing, intelligent and genuinely funny.

There’s a chance it may upset some people because it turns a serious situation into an amusing comedy. Is it saying that it’s acceptable to be pregnant at 16? How would you feel as a parent who faced a similar situation? How would you feel if you were a pregnant teen and didn’t receive that kind of support and understanding from your parents? I would hope that it can be taken for what it is; a fictional situation. It’s more about how the characters react to the situation than anything else.

I talk a lot about being taken into different worlds by a good film and Juno falls into that category. Although it lasts just 96 minutes, I am reluctant to leave that world and always watch the special features. So, for me, Juno is a three-hour experience that always makes me happy.

If you like Juno:

After four films, it seems that I am a huge fan of director Jason Reitman. Like Juno, Up in the Air includes outstanding dialogue. George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick star and the cameo from J. K. Simmons is also memorable. Although slightly below the level of those two films, Thank You for Smoking and Young Adult are well worth your time.

Fans of Ellen Page might want to check out Hard Candy, but be aware that she plays a much grittier character than the one who charmed us in Juno. I can't talk much about the film without ruining the plot, but it was a tremendous performance from Page when she was just 17 years old (playing a 14-year-old).

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  1. I like the creative team of Diablo Cody and Reitman - she's a terrific writer and is complemented by Reitman's style. Juno certainly stands out though thanks to Ellen Page's performance.

    1. Hi Dan,

      Yes, they do work well together. The mutual respect is evident in the special features. I'm looking forward to picking up Young Adult next month. All four Reitman films are significant, and two of them are in my all-time top 20.

  2. Great review! I love Juno. Back in 07, when I first saw it, I became obsessed. This film has great dialog and Diablo Cody deserved every ounce of that Oscar.

  3. Thanks Fernando,

    I feel the same way about the dialogue in Up in the Air and Thank You for Smoking. Dialogue is very important to me. I think that's why The Descendants and Midnight in Paris appeal to me more than The Artist.