Initial fumblings precede a prize pic in 'Juno'
Ellen Page is key to its success, as much as Cody, or director Jason Reitman. Previously Reitman made "Thank You For Smoking," and while that was satire and this a comic fable in the key of Quirk, he brings a similarly bright look, feel and snap to the proceedings. Page stars as 16-year-old Juno MacGuff, a suburban Twin Cities kid (the city's never mentioned by name, but surrounding communities such as Stillwater and St. Cloud are) living with her sister, her father and her stepmother in relative harmony. The heroine resembles MTV's sardonic Daria Morgendorffer, only sunnier. When we first see her, she's glugging from a huge container of Sunny D in order to facilitate a urine test, part of a home pregnancy kit. It comes up positive. The father, still a boy, is a nice guy on the track team played by Michael Cera from "Arrested Development" and "Superbad." Page and Cera are magically right together, and as much as Cody's script, the leading actors make "Juno" mean something in emotional terms. This is a tale of two kids who have sex for the first time with momentous consequences, and while Cody's impulse as a writer is to mask her characters' insecurities and fears with banter, at her best she can hit two or even three notes at once.
Juno's father (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney) are thrown by the pregnancy but supportive of her decision to see it through to term. The perfect adoptive parents emerge in the form of Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), an image-conscious, slightly prickly suburbanite, and her composer husband, Mark (Jason Bateman). Here, Cody settles for some easy, familiar shorthand, painting this couple's lifestyle--which Mark is secretly, then openly, rebelling against--as stultifying. We've been there before, in "American Beauty" and a lot of other pictures. Yet Cody and director Reitman surprise us: Trading in archetypes that predate the oeuvre of John Hughes, even, they upend our expectations just enough to engage us in plot terms. Reitman doesn't dig deeply, exactly. Nor does Cody. But Page and Cera are such marvels of easygoing, easy-breathing skill, "Juno" keeps getting better and better. They're both Canadian, for the record. I wonder: Do Canadian schools offer some sort of special class in endearing deadpan sincerity?
Everyone's just right in it: Page and Olivia Thirlby, who plays her teacher-idolizing pal, really do seem like best friends of equal smarts and empathy. Simmons and Janney are exactly who you need for these gently idealized parental units. Certain scenes seem calculated, such as a hospital visit designed to give Janney a chance to nail a judgmental staffer with zingers. But you don't hear Cody's punch lines coming a mile away; she's too interested in weird turns of phrase we catch on the fly ("Oh my blog!" instead of "Oh my God!").
If "Juno" becomes a popular success, and it should, it'll do so on the strength of all its actual merits, along with the messages people want to glean from it. Anti-abortion camps can champion Juno's decision not to have the procedure; pro-choice camps can enjoy the way Cody's protagonist runs her own show on her own terms. Can't a piece of entertainment settle for being "apolitical," as director Reitman has characterized "Juno"? Well, no, not with this subject matter. But there's no polemical impulse of any kind at work here. Even if you resist some of the easy-listening ditties on the soundtrack, or the made-for-TV animated opening credits, Page ensures that everything that's good and funny and fresh in the material comes through. If few 16-year-olds actually deal with first-time, whoopsie-daisy pregnancy with this much elan, well, that's what movies are for, even modest comedies--to show us the possible.
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