Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) probably wished she were that sneeringly tough. A 16-year-old high-school junior, Juno finds herself pregnant after a one-afternoon-stand in the easy chair with her heretofore platonic pal, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). But, despite a visit to the local clinic, she can’t pull the termination trigger. Instead, she fesses up to her dad (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney) and opts to give her baby up for adoption. And when she finds a newspaper ad placed by Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner)—an infertile suburban couple—it appears that Juno’s little accident will have a happy ending after all.
If it does, however, it’s not going to be in any conventional way. At the outset, it does seem that Juno is going to be a vessel for plenty of hyperliterate quotable quotes, with just a dash of smugness. “This is one doodle that can’t be undid, home skillet,” opines the clerk (Rainn Wilson) at the convenience store where Juno takes her pregnancy test; “All babies want to get borned,” malaprops Juno’s Asian-American classmate (Valerie Tian) protesting at the clinic. “It makes his junk taste like pie,” deadpans one girl about her boyfriend’s preferred boysenberry condoms. You’ll chuckle, you and your friends will bounce some of the pithier lines back and forth for a couple of weeks, and it’ll all be forgotten by spring. Right?
Except that it’s going to be nearly impossible to forget Ellen Page. After her ferocious turn in the Sundance thriller Hard Candy a couple of years ago, the dark-eyed, cherub-faced Page turned up in last year’s X-Men: The Last Stand as Kitty Pryde, but this is the kind of performance that stars are made of. It’s certainly partly due to her laser-sharp way with Cody’s dialogue, making it somehow seem like a natural part of this quick-witted oddball. But she also takes unspoken moments and makes them gloriously perfect, like an “I’ll be damned” raised eyebrow when informed that her fetus already has fingernails. And she gives an understated wounded soul to a girl with an absentee mother who’s trying to find hope for a perfect family in this situation—even if it’s not going to be her own.
It’s that little undercurrent of yearning that gives Juno even more heart than attitude. Cody and Reitman introduce characters that initially look to be little more than punching bags, only to reverse field and make them considerably more complicated. Juno’s gruff father becomes an unexpected rock of support for her rather than an adversary, as does the stepmother whose obsession with dogs still leads Juno to petty acts of vandalism. The scene in which Vanessa is introduced hints at a fussy, anal-retentive career woman, until Garner gives her longing for motherhood a real ache. Even the turns taken by Bateman’s Mark—a frustrated would-be rock star—give him a certain integrity. With rare exceptions, the gags aren’t cheaply at someone’s expense. This is comedy with an uncommon generosity.
Some critics have already lined up to fire shots at Juno from opposite directions, suggesting either that it’s too enamored of its own verbosity or that it cops out on its early lacerating sensibility. Neither, it turns out, captures why Juno, imperfect though it may be, still works so well. Cody understands the needy kid still lurking inside so many tough-talking teens and finds in Juno’s situation a way to discover happy endings emerging from unorthodox choices. That the film is smart and funny, everyone seems to agree on, but its real delights come from somewhere else. The hype machine doesn’t seem to see the upside of emphasizing a movie that’s purely, unpredictably sweet.
Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner