There was a time in our history, not all that long ago, when unwed pregnancy could detrimentally alter a life. A teenager who became pregnant shamed her entire family. 'Shotgun weddings" were compelled by angry fathers. Young woman were sent away from their communities to bear their children in anonymity. In the days before Roe v. Wade, abortions were illegal and dangerous and widely available only to the rich. In many ways our world is not a better place, but about this matter it largely is. Unwed pregnancy remains a serious issue. But it can be dealt with out in the open. It can even provide the subject for comedy as it does in last summer's hit Knocked Up or now in the deeply pleasing Juno. Directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) and written by Diablo Cody, Juno is the story of an unconventional high-school junior, her unconventional-but-loving family, and her unconventional love affair with one of her classmates. Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is an iconoclast. She disdains all the trappings of high-school popularity. One is tempted to lump her in with the Goths, but she's not a joiner of any kind and is neither as alienated and angry nor as pessimistic as other kids who see themselves as outsiders. In fact, she possesses an oddly impressive self-awareness. After she becomes pregnant, when her dad Mac (J.K. Simmons) says, 'I thought you were the kind of girl who knew where to draw the line," she responds with matter-of-fact ruefulness, 'I don't really know what kind of girl I am."
Juno is an outsider, but she's not a pariah. One of the cool guys in school has a crush on her. And she has friends, including a girl on the cheerleading squad. Moreover, the guy Juno gets involved with is a star middle-distance runner on the track team. Run though he can, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera, who played a similar character in Superbad) won't be showing up in any studmuffin pictorials. As Mac MacGuff says when he learns Paulie is the father of Juno's fetus, 'I didn't know he had it in him." In short, Paulie is not a standard heartthrob. But Juno falls for his intelligence and his gentleness, and it is she who initiates the sex that gets them into trouble.
Page so thoroughly inhabits the character of Juno that it is impossible to imagine another actress in the role or the picture working without her. She has a distinctive deadpan voice, the vocal equivalent of the look on Buster Keaton's face. It is a worldly voice, one that communicates, whatever the subject, Juno's expectations that life is an experience of limited possibilities. What's wonderful in the performance is Page's ability to mix a determination to carry on with an attitude that approaches resignation. In the end, Juno is guardedly hopeful if, characteristically, never remotely chipper. Page will almost certainly be nominated for an Oscar, and if I had not already had my heart broken by Julie Christie's magnificence in Away from Her, I would root for Page. She's my strong second choice.
Apart from Page, the ingredient that makes Juno such a pleasurable movie-going experience is screenwriter Cody's refusal to settle for stock characters or plot solutions. A lesser writer would have turned Juno's parents into monsters. Instead, they are much like her. And isn't that appropriate since they have raised her. Juno's dad and stepmom Bren (the always excellent Allison Janney) take Juno's pregnancy in stride, leavening their concern and disappointment with effective humor. Bren remarks after hearing the bad news that she had been hoping the problem would be hard drugs, a comment that is both funny in the uttering and places Juno's situation in the proper comparative light. It's awful that she's let herself get pregnant, but it's not as bad as if she had adopted a behavior that could kill her.
Cody and director Reitman also handle Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) Loring with great skill. The Lorings want to adopt Juno's baby when she gives birth, and they, too, could have become stereotyped either as villains or as the potential victims of a girl just discovering herself. Again, instead, the script develops both characters into fully realized, appropriately complicated human beings. Who they are and how they are going to act provides much of the film's suspense, and their development is executed with great precision.
In sum, Juno is an unqualified winner, this year's Little Miss Sunshine. Don't miss it.
- 2007 20th Century Fox
- Mark (Jason Bateman) and Juno (Ellen Page) share news about her pregnancy.