The cool kids in high school are never as cool in retrospect. When you think back on it, from an adult perspective, they were the odd-balls, the ones who did whatever they wanted, who didn’t conform to societal norms. Such is the case with Juno, the title character in the new film directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking) and written by Diablo Cody. She’s cool because she isn’t a cheerleader or a bitch. She’s just this odd little girl, named after the queen of the Roman gods, with a step-mom and a half-sister and house phone that looks like a hamburger. In short, she’s cool simply because she isn’t.
And then… well, and then she gets pregnant. It was an accident that happened when she was being deflowered by her best friend Bleeker. After a not-so-good visit to the women’s clinic, Juno decides to carry the baby to term and then give it up for adoption to a couple she finds in the classifieds. At this point, this could be any 70’s-era after-school special. What makes it different is that none of the characters are stereotypical. From Juno herself (the adorable Ellen Page) to her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), a cheerleader who has a crush on the not-so-hunky math teacher, to the father of her child, Bleeker (up-and-comer Michael Cera). Each of these fine young actors are helped along by a script which allows them to confess real emotions in a stylized way. The dialogue sounds like a high school version of Mamet, zippy and laced with subtext.
Even Juno’s parents are a bit of a surprise. Her father (the increasingly versatile J.K. Simmons), when faced with the news of his eldest’s indiscretion, doesn’t fly off the handle or even raise his voice. Instead, he reacts with calm and genuine concern. It’s not that he isn’t angry, he is, but he’s also smart enough to understand that’s not going to get him anywhere. Instead, he steps up and assumes the role of protector. And his wife, Juno’s step-mother (Allison Janney), who could easily be slotted into the bad guy role, defies expectations by being real, by supporting her wayward kid, even when she doesn’t always believe that kid is making the right choices.
That’s part of what makes this film so charming. There is no bad guy. No one is to blame, there’s no evil syndicate after the unborn child and that child is not the spawn of Satan. Every one is human and flawed and scared and confused. And this includes the adoptive parents. Mark and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). These two represent the opposite of Juno’s life. They are yuppies who just can’t have a child and really, really want one. Garner, in particular, does a fine job of portraying the desperate wannabe mom. Bateman, however, is the film’s only misstep. While his performance is fine, his character, someone who connects with Juno in ways she never imagined, gets the brunt of screenwriter Cody’s moralizing. Bateman’s Mark is in the unenviable position of being the one loose end and it’s a shame, because the outcome could have been the same without him making some of the choices he did.
Before we wrap this up, though, we must mention the music. The soundtrack (which is not available commercially) is taken mostly from pre-existing songs by members of The Moldy Peaches and should do for their music what Benny & Joon did for The Proclaimers. The songs are coffee house grunge and fit the mood so perfectly I was surprised to learn they weren’t written specifically for the film.
By the time we get to the beginning of a new life, which ends the film, we are witness to a beautiful moment. It shows there can be things which are completely life-altering, that don’t have to change your life. And that’s a great message for anyone of any age.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)