Juno is a refreshingly smart movie about an articulate, precocious young person with a clear sense of herself and her nascent place in the world. Written by the also precocious new screenwriter Diablo Cody, the film stands as a corrective to all the mass-marketed teen movies that engage the tired, ideologically destructive story of girls’ inhumanity to girls. Cody paints instead a portrait of a kid at a young age whose bon mots stand with the best of them, offering an ironic but warm, wise but not at all weary view of her world’s minor calamities and major achievements (see fox search light).Juno resembles My So-Called Life for the 21st century, as Juno (the multiple awards-nominated Ellen Page, delivering a brilliant, witty, unself-conscious performance as the calm and collected 16-year-old) comments in a sophisticated-beyond-her-years voice-over on her inadvertent pregnancy and her plan to give the baby to a childless yuppie couple she finds in the local penny-saver circular. The slightly off-kilter situations (who, after all, would arrange to find her offspring adoptive parents in the small-town equivalent of craigslist.com?) deliver an affectionate, respectful view of the travails of a rather ordinary (if extremely wry, kind, and generous) cobbled-together family coming to terms with the indiscretions of their oldest child.
When Juno delivers the news to her father and step-mother, instead of reacting with the disapprobation popular culture has lead us to expect of conventional parents, the couple resign themselves to helping Juno follow through on her plan without judgment. Her father is played with great warmth, forgiveness, and verve by J.K. Simmons, a terrific character actor who’s turned in detailed, knowing, and realistic portraits on everything from HBO’s Oz—as a fascist inmate—andLaw and Order: SVU—as the observant police shrink—to The Closer—as Brenda’s rather hapless superior and one-time lover. The sublime Allison Janney plays Juno’s dog-loving step-mom with sardonic wit and empathy (this role is a happy corrective to the catatonic wife/mother she played in Alan Ball’s American Beauty some years back). She delivers one of the film’s best monologues when she berates the prim, judgmental ultra-sound technician who comments on Juno’s pregnancy. Although the two aren’t happy about it (after her confession, they privately admit that they’d been hoping she was on hard drugs or had been expelled from school), and although they wonder why she’s chosen not to have an abortion, they’re willing to support Juno’s choice.
The politics of choice in Juno are rather complicated. While the movie’s less conventional take on teenagers works very well, Cody and Reitman could be more progressive in how they address abortion. Juno plans an abortion first thing, but on her way into the clinic, a mopey school friend holding a lonely picket sign and demonstrating alone in the parking lot informs her in passing that her embryo has fingernails. The image resonates too loudly for Juno to go through with the procedure. Her reconsideration seems a bit too easy, and lets the film avoid a frank confrontation with abortion as a real choice.
On the other hand, before she backs out, Juno finds the abortion clinic front desk staffed by an extremely pierced young woman whose apathy and attitude renders it common-place instead of controversial. The receptionist’s response to Juno’s appearance makes going for an abortion as mundane as picking up a packet of birth control pills. Juno chooses to deliver her baby not from some religiously inspired moral epiphany, but because she just can’t shake the image of those growing fingernails on the tadpole she carries.
Where other teen girl flicks set up obvious conflicts between the cool kids and the nerds, Junoforgoes the obvious to imagine high school life on a more level playing field, in which even the heterosexual gender tensions are more humor-filled than angst-ridden. Controlled by her hormones and teenage curiosity, Juno seduces her best friend Bleeker (Michael Cera), distracting him from running practice and track events. Neither kid is conventionally cool; Juno is wordy and ironic without being nihilist or superior, and Bleeker is inarticulate but sweet, masking his feelings with the armor of his color-coordinated, team-branded running shorts and sweat bands.
Loving her with a hang-dog, puppy-eyed sweetness and vulnerable innocence, he haplessly follows Juno’s lead and her advice, never questioning that her choice about the baby (or their relationship) are hers alone to make. Girls rule, but boys don’t drool here—they’re thoughtful, kind, and supportive (underlining, perhaps, the film’s fairy-tale effect).
Juno’s best friend, Leah (Olivia Thirlby), also thwarts teen-flick conventions. Leah is a cheerleader, but rather than hanging with jocks (who make virtually no appearance in Juno), Leah crushes out on her teachers (including a dowdy male English teacher). She’s Juno’s stalwart companion, by her side when Juno tells her parents she’s pregnant, and holding her hand through her ultra-sound and her delivery. Leah plays Pancho to Juno’s Quixote, admiring her plans, eager to help, along for the ride. Leah might be pretty and athletic and Juno might be artsy and intellectual, but in this film, their differences don’t prevent a fast friendship.
The yuppie couple Juno chooses to raise her child live in an anonymous, cookie-cutter subdivision dripping with wealth and privilege, which intimidates Juno and her heat-and-cooling-system-maintenance-man father not at all. They drive their outmoded royal blue van into the yuppie couple’s driveway and march to the door for their first meeting, in which Juno proceeds to set the terms of arrangement to the couple’s surprised and rattled lawyer.
The Lorings (Vanessa, played by a radiant and sad Jennifer Garner, and Mark, played by an ambivalent and sad Jason Bateman) worry that Juno will back out of the deal, an idea that never occurs to Juno (in another of the film’s refusals to follow traditional narrative tracks). Instead, their own tenuous bond breaks during Juno’s pregnancy, as Mark decides to follow his own dreams instead of supporting his wife’s romantic race toward her nesting destiny.
Juno could have resolved in a number of conservative ways, and could have painted the baby’s potential futures in several colors of moral judgment. Instead, the screenplay resists tradition and follows its complexly-drawn main character’s nuanced heart, arriving at the more progressive of possible endings without sacrificing the edgy, humor-tinged realism in which it trades.
Director Jason Reitman films Juno with the same wry comic touch that infuses the screenplay, selecting details in each scene that complement screenwriter Cody’s fusillade of smart words. Critics have unanimously remarked on Juno’s hamburger phone, with which she calls Leah and the abortion clinic. But the film is also littered with other visual comments and treats, like the pictures of beloved dogs that Juno’s step-mom cuts out of magazines; the ballerina outfit Juno’s step-sister “Liberty Belle” wears out of the house when the family rushes to the hospital after Juno’s water breaks; the complex piece of machinery on which her father works, spread out across the kitchen table; the dessert-named paint colors Vanessa experiments with on the walls of the baby’s nursery; the guitars and sound equipment that litter Mark’s room, his chaotic sanctuary from the ordered but empty, monied adult world his wife so meticulously creates; and even the gold- and rust-colored running outfits that adorn the long-distance boys running team, decorated with their “Dancing Elks” team name, all of which lend Juno its warmth and richly observed character.
For all Juno’s smart bravado, she’s ultimately still a teenager, a state of bliss (if not innocence) captured in the film’s last scene, when she flies out of her house onto her bicycle with a guitar strapped to her back to pedal off to visit her friend.
A movie like this gives me hope that popular culture can deliver more complicated stories about choice, about girls, and about the ethical ways we choose to live, without sacrificing humor and depth. Some critics call Juno post-feminist; I’d just call it feminist.
The Feminist Spectator