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Little Film That Could

A film review by James Berardinelli, ReelViews


USA, 2007
Director Jason Reitman
Starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirlby

Juno may well be 2007’s “Little Film That Could.” You know the category — there’s one every year. Last year’s entry was Little Miss Sunshine. Word-of-mouth for Juno has been building since its World Premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in early September. The film almost came out of nowhere — almost, but not quite. It then rode a wave of positive buzz to Toronto. The marketers were out in full force, giving away boxes of orange Tic-Tacs (if you see the movie, you’ll understand). The result (of the buzz more than the breath mints) was packed screenings. Now, with visions of little golden statues dancing in their heads, the men and women behind the movie are cautiously hoping more for a visit from Oscar than some fat guy in a red suit.

If one was to categorize Juno, it would fall into the hybrid coming-of-age/teen romantic comedy category. But, as movies like Superbad have shown, such labels aren’t necessarily negatives. Juno, directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) is smart, witty, and engaging — three ingredients that, when applied to any film, comprise a recipe for success. Juno has a great heroine and is blessed by a screenplay that doesn’t try to do too much and finds the perfect ending. It’s a little odd that this is the third comedy this year to focus on pregnancy. I enjoyed both Knocked Up and Waitress, but Juno gets my vote for the best of the three.

Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is sixteen years old and pregnant. She takes three home pregnancy tests to be sure, but the results can’t be denied. Her boyfriend, Paulie (Michael Cera), is as befuddled by the news as she is. After all, they only did it once, although that’s obviously enough. (And, to his credit, he doesn’t do the most insensitive thing imaginable and ask if she’s sure he’s the father.) At first, Juno considers an abortion, but she doesn’t like the vibe she gets at the clinic. So, after revealing the truth to her supportive father (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney), she goes to the “Desperately Seeking Spawn” section of the penny saver to try to find a good Mommy and Daddy for her unborn child. “Someone is going to get a blessing out of this garbage dump of a situation.” Enter Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman), Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful. They’re ready to adopt — or at least Vanessa is. Mark, on the other hand, seems more interested in watching old horror movies and discussing music with the prospective mother of his future child.

Juno isn’t one of those “laugh riots” that will have audience members rolling in the aisles, getting fake popcorn butter and spilled soda all over their clothing. Instead, it’s funny in a sassy way — the kind of humor that causes a lot of smiles and chuckles to go along with the occasional stomach-jiggling laugh. The script is polished to near perfection. Almost everything that Juno says is worth listening to, whether it’s dialogue that comes out of her mouth or her thoughts expressed in a voiceover narrative.

While plenty of credit can be heaped upon director Reitman and his collaborator Diablo Cody (the stripper-turned-screenwriter), the lead actress deserves as much praise as either of them, if not more. I’m not of the opinion that this is a star-making turn for Ellen Page — that distinction went to last year’s searing Hard Candy — but Juno confirms that she is much more than a flash in the pan. She’s someone to watch. She may not get a Best Actress nomination for her role here (that depends too much on politics for a prediction at this time), but if one comes in her direction, it’s no fluke. She gets able support from a strong cast. Superbad’s Michael Cera creates the kind of genuine, timid guy who’s too rarely seen in teen films. Allison Janney and J. K. Simmons are the parents every pregnant girl would love to have (although they wish for a school suspension instead of the “bun in the oven” news). Jennifer Garner is perfectly sincere and not at all like we have seen her before, and Jason Bateman portrays the most human character he has played in a while. However, all of these actors, as good an experienced as they may be, are simply orbiting Page’s star. This is her film from start to finish.

Juno is the kind of the film where a viewer almost needs to look for a reason to dislike it for it not to work. It’s charming without being saccharine. It’s funny without being rude or dishonest. It’s smart without being smart-assed. And it’s got enough heart to keep the comedic elements in check. When I was done smiling, the movie gave me something to think about, as well: Where were girls like this when I was in high school? Someone like Juno would have had me from the first bell.