January 21, 2008

The Birth of Cool

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One of the funniest stories to come out of 2007 is about a 16-year-old girl dealing with the social and emotional pitfalls of being a pregnant teen; shockingly, it doesn’t involve Jamie Lynn Spears. Juno, the second film from director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking), transcends the limited accessibility of the indie-film genre, and delivers a refreshing movie-going experience with universal appeal. Penned by secretary-turned-stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody, Juno is a razor-sharp comedy that packs an emotional punch takes a surprisingly mature look at a hot-button issue that too easily could have been politicized.
The movie begins as the titular mother-to-be (Ellen Page) first discovers the good (?) news, courtesy of three separate pregnancy tests (“I drank like ten gallons of Sunny D”). The father? That would be Paulie Bleaker (Michael Cera), the best friend who she (basically) forces herself upon, half out of boredom, and half out of budding romantic interest. That she does so without the use of birth control is really the movie’s only main conceit that requires the suspension of disbelief. She grapples briefly with the significance of her predicament before deciding to have the baby and give it to Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), a young, upper-middle class married couple she found in the Pennysaver who are unable to conceive on their own. Vanessa, desperate to be a mother (a job for which she feels she was born to do), gives off a cold, control-freak vibe, but Juno takes a liking to her husband, a commercial composer who works at home, spending his free time banging out tunes on his Les Paul and watching cheesy horror flicks. There seems to be an undercurrent of emotional baggage between the husband and wife, but Juno — possibly oblivious to this — seems convinced she’s making the correct decision.
I initially went into the film wary of its potential. Theaters have been inundated with “quirky indie comedies” over the past few years, and it’s easy to dismiss this one as being just another Little Miss Sunshine. After all, how many Garden State’s can a person take before the all-acoustic soundtracks, obscure pop-culture references, and geeky underdogs start getting a little old? And please, for the love of God, no more Zach Braff. But I digress.
It’s important to approach this film with an open mind, because Juno isn’t by any means a run-of-the-mill quirk-fest. Behind all the sarcastic one-liners and hipster counter-culture ephemera is a surprisingly universal story about growing up. And, thankfully, none of its themes are driven home in a way that is at all saccharine or overly sentimental. This is a smart movie with a wicked sense of humor and a nuanced understanding of the requirements of relationships and, more generally, of being an adult.
Much of the thanks there has to go to Diablo Cody, a one-time secretary and advertising lackey who decided she would “rather be naked” than work in the sterile white-collar atmosphere any longer — her stripper exploits were largely documented on her blog, “The Pussy Ranch.” Cody has created a world populated by real people, who behave (though not necessarily speak) like real people actually would. The dialogue, though at times only tenuously approaching authentic young-person vernacular (who the hell has ever said “honest to blog”), is wonderfully eccentric and thoroughly enjoyable.
It is possible that in the hands of lesser actors the script’s humor might have come off as smug and acutely aware of its own cleverness. Thankfully, though, Juno is blessed with an abundance of great acting. Ellen Page, as the movie’s heroine, is smart, sassy and cool, but that’s the easy part. What’s really impressive is how she mixes in just a dash of vulnerability, and fleshes out her character into a three-dimensional person.
Juno is a smart girl, and she knows it. But she also doesn’t know as much as she thinks she does, a fact illustrated well through Page’s performance. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, particularly Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman who add layers of complexity to Vanessa and Mark as the film progresses, though their roles seem straightforward at the beginning.
Juno takes a premise that could easily just be movie-of-the-week fodder — a tired cautionary rehash — and turns it into something more. Smart, poignant, and wickedly funny, Juno is one of the best movies of 2007, and a must-see for all audiences — indie-kids and mainstreamers alike.