Not the City in Alaska

Main Cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Alison Janney, JK Simmons

Director: Jason Reitman

Teen pregnancy isn’t funny. Believe me, I’m a parent and I was tempted to get my daughter Norplant for her eleventh birthday – that’s how scary is the notion of my baby having a baby while she’s still a baby. Most of the time, when teen pregnancies are portrayed on film, they are exactly as awful as they are in my imagination – lives ruined, families torn asunder, children scarred forever. But not Juno. I can’t quite believe it, but this film manages to make a teen pregnancy sweet and funny. Make no mistake, I haven’t given up my Norplant fantasy (maybe with back-up placement in a nunnery), but as far as fiction goes, this is a gem of a film.

Juno is our lead character. From the first scene (with a brilliantly goofy appearance by Rainn Wilson from The Office) it’s also clear that Juno is pregnant. Not good. She knows who and how and when, she just has to figure out what next. Her initial plans don’t work out as she thought they would, so Juno decides she’ll give this baby up for adoption. The film follows her quest to find and relate on some level to parents for this baby, as well as deal with being a high school kid with a great big pregnant belly.

I know, I know, that’s a crappy synopsis. The thing is, it has to be. There’s no real way to capture what is special about Juno by going over the premise. The beauty here isn’t in the basic idea; it’s in the execution of that idea, in the characters laid out for inspection and the dialogue and personality that develop within this slice of one teenager’s life. Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody work over that basic, uninspired plot outline and mold it into something terrifically winning.

The essence of Juno is, well, Juno. Played exquisitely by Ellen Page, this is a character that pops off the screen with her unkempt ponytail and one crooked tooth. She has the confidence that comes from being smart and the vulnerability that comes with being young. She is also hilariously unselfconscious in some of the new situations in which she now finds herself. Where other kids would freeze, Juno plows ahead, says what she thinks and barely notices that not everyone is quite on her wavelength. Cody gives this character whip-smart dialogue that works nearly without fail and Ellen Page is right on top of every line. Her delivery is absolutely in sync with her character and she never sounds stiff or uncomfortable with this sweet little oddball girl she inhabits.

The entire screenplay is filled with funny, funny bits of dialogue delivered deadpan by the actors. This is the kind of dialogue that comes to mind when you wish you had thought of something to say in an awkward situation. The perfect witty aside or the funniest comeback – those are here. And they don’t sound unnatural or forced, they’re enviably subtle and every character is blessed with at least one of them. Cody really delivers the goods and Reitman is able to translate those characters successfully from page to screen.

Quite a bit of the credit for that success has to go to the cast. In addition to the adorable Page, we get supporting performances from some fantastic veteran actors. JK Simmons and Alison Janney do a tremendous job as Juno’s father and step-mother. They are just as smart and sarcastic as Juno – for once we don’t get a sassy kid with dumb parents. It’s not hard to tell where Juno gets her wit; her scenes with her father are particularly sweet and funny.

Also gracing the screen are Jason Bateman (who moved on to significantly darker material with Ozark) and Jennifer Garner as prospective adoptive parents. While neither has the pedigree of Janney or Simmons, both are highly respectable in their roles. Garner is really quite touching as the awkward, uncomfortable and nervous potential mother-to-be. She does well with this character, letting her desperation leak through just enough for us to understand her and forgive her some of her more obsessive qualities. Bateman is cute and charming, exactly as he’s supposed to be. Michael Cera as the father of Juno’s baby is absolutely perfect. He is so awkward and so adolescent. No too-old pretty boy here – this kid is a kid.

Adding nuance to the film is a tinkling indie/folk score that fits very well with the quirks of the film and the characters. There are moments when it’s a bit over loud, but they are few and far between. For the most part it’s an excellent addition that neither overwhelms nor leaves the film without an aural personality.

Juno is exactly the kind of movie that makes me glad that small budget films are not only getting made, but getting more and more recognition from the mainstream film community. This is a small film, and yet we have a core of fine, experienced actors willing to give of their time and talent (I can’t believe any of them did the movie for the paycheck) to make something in which each of them can take pride. When I’m not working on my strategies to keep my daughter from dating until she’s 30, I take great joy in exactly this kind of film. Juno is a gem, one I highly recommend.

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