Great, distinctive dialogue is the breadwinner for a lot of prominent screenwriters, and Diablo Cody, making her debut with Juno, is clearly hoping to join their ranks. Her hero, the smart, too-cool-for-any-room Juno McGuff (named after Zeus’ wife, natch) talks like no one in the movies — her closest cousin may be Enid from Ghost World, but the barrage of ambiguously ironic jargon Juno unleashes would make even Enid’s head spin. From emphatic “hells yeah”s (a phrase Enid wouldn’t be caught dead using) to — so help me — “honest to blog,” Juno and her friends are angling for a place in movie history.
There’s a strong argument that Cody tries a little too hard. The rapid-fire, endlessly wisecracking dialogue, delivered with conviction but slight discomfort by Ellen Page, sometimes makes Juno more bratty than sassy or smart. It is nice to see teenage characters speaking with a modicum of wit and erudition, but this may be an instance of words that read better that they sound.
Had Cody rested on her laurels with the creation of Juno, that may have been the end of that. But her fleet, funny screenplay contains a wealth of material beyond the hero’s personality and motor-mouth, and director Jason Reitman managed to line up folks like Michael Cera, Jason Bateman and J.K. Simmons to bring it to life. The result is the sort of “quirky” that’s endearing instead of annoying, a potential viral hit whose popularity (unlike that of, say, Napoleon Dynamite) I’ll actually be able to understand.
As the film opens, 16 year-old Juno downs a bottle of Sunny Delight in preparation for her third pregnancy test — she remains unconvinced after the first two came out positive, perhaps because “the plus looked like a division sign” on the second one. The father is Paulie Bleeker (Cera), a gawky, awkward track star who is the last person most people expected to knock someone up in high school (“I didn’t think he had it in him,” comments Juno’s dad, who takes the whole thing in stride). From day one, Juno knows that she’s not ready to be a mother, and after a halted attempt “to procure a hasty abortion,” she finds the lovely, wealthy Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), who are infertile but apparently desperate for a child. “I was born to be a mother,” insists Vanessa.
The film wisely skips the emotional assaults. When Juno had to confess her pregnancy to her dad and stepmom (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney), I was expecting a teary confrontation, but the scene is shockingly mature, and even sweet: Juno apologizes; the parents are shaken but impressed with her poise and decisiveness (“I was hoping she was expelled, or into hard drugs;” “That was my first instinct…”). Instead of putting Juno in constant, most likely tedious conflict with her folks (who are mostly portrayed as understanding and kind), Reitman and Cody instead decide to spend some time with the adoptive couple, as the worldly, preternaturally cool Mark realizes that Vanessa’s obsession with becoming a mom will interfere with his ambitions. Juno‘s sympathy for Mark — a commercial jingle composer who loves gory horror films and wears goofy t-shirts — is touching; the film has surprising insight into what it means to be a grown-up.
This is the kind of movie that can easily get too cute and saccharine-sweet — you have to be in the right mood. And I do wish that Cody’s script and Reitman’s direction had been a bit more effortless; at points, you can really feel them straining to brand the film, to force cult status upon it. But the ending is so tender, so deeply felt (it reminded me of this year’s cuddly arthouse hit Once) that Juno as a whole becomes hard to resist. (Juno and Cera’s Paulie have a climactic exchange that is so colossally awesome it should strike envy into the hearts of romantic comedy screenwriters everywhere.) I hope this one makes a few careers.