A Film by Jason Reitman
Screenplay by Diabblo Cody
The new film from Jason Reitman is the much-anticipated follow up to his very fine first feature Thank You For Smoking. Although less sharply satirical than the former film, Juno also treats a serious subject - teen pregnancy - with a comic flair. Where Reitman wrote the screenplay for Smoking (adapted from the book by Christopher Buckley) himself, here the screenplay is from memoirist and former exotic dancer Diablo Cody. Their joint effort, in spite a few flaws that further experience might have helped (this is Reitman's second feature and Cody's first produced screenplay) is quite a charming film, even if the provocative edginess of Smoking is sadly missing.
The film centers around the eponymous character, Juno MacGuff, an outspoken, fiercely independent high school junior whose bold - but not always carefully considered - exploration of the world leads her to find herself unexpectedly pregnant. "Complications" as plot synopses so delicately put it "ensue."
The treatment of Juno's situation is a far cry from the political correctness of after-school specials and moralistic hypocrisy of films on the subject made in 20th Century. Juno is a surprisingly "liberated" young woman, with her own plans, and the energy, confidence and initiative to put them into practice. In these days of almost indefinitely prolonged adolescence, we often forget that only a century ago women (and men) of Juno's age were rearing families, holding down jobs and taking a full place in the adult world.
Part of what contributes to the film's appeal is the fact that Reitman and Cody take a refreshingly un-judgmental tone in their approach. They invite us to observe Juno, a particular young girl, dealing with a particular problem in the midst of a particular set of parameters, and they don't seek to draw conclusions or extrapolate generalizations based on the story they tell. Good filmmaking is good story telling, and Reitman and Cody tell the story of their remarkable and appealing protagonist effectively. And within that context - of personalizing rather than politicizing - they are able to deal with controversial and sensitive issues in a very straightforward way.
Juno understands from the start that she is not ready to be a mother. Her first impulse is to solve her problem by getting an abortion. On the way into the clinic, she meets a classmate picketing on behalf of the "right to life." After a brief exchange that highlights the divide between theoretical "principles" and the need to apply real solutions to real problems, Juno enters the clinic. Once inside, an aggregation of events - each insignificant on its own - leads Juno to abandon her plan and leave. But as presented here, her decision isn't a vindication of any "position" or viewpoint. Rather it's the simple "gut-reaction" of the particular person Juno happens to be, to those specific circumstances.
Throughout the film the script takes unexpected directions, away from stereotypes and formula and towards a more thoughtful exploration of the choices that are open to the characters, and the ones they make. At the end of the film it is clear that far from being "resolved", the consequences of those choices are going to continue to resonate in all the character's lives.
The relationship between Mark and Vanessa, the potential adoptive parents, for instance, shows them in considerable complexity. At first Mark appears to be the more open, relaxed and self-possesed of the two, while Vanessa seems insecure, anxious and driven - but as the film progresses the characters reveal themselves, as Mark shows his narcissistic side and Vanessa reveals tenderness, resolve and vulnerability. And at the end it isn't clear what direction their relationship will take.
The emotional core that fuels a dramatic structure like this is each character's struggle to face and deal with the changing circumstances. It's the authenticity of the representation of this struggle that is Juno's greatest strength. And the flip side of the lack of moral judgment on the part of the filmmakers is that every character is treated with respect and sympathy for their aspirations, fears and choices.
To put such feelings across requires good writing and careful, delicate direction. Reitman walked the fine line of satire, without falling into anger or bitterness, in Thank You For Smoking, where he skewered the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of some characters with the same glee that he mocked the amorality and shallowness of others. In this film, he skirts sentimentality and mawkishness without resorting to self-conscious irony and cynicism. He - and Cody's script - genuinely likes these characters, faults and all. There's nothing condescending - in fact, something deeply humble - in the way he brings them to life.
And of course, it is his cast who breathe the real life into the lines. Reitman has put together a fine ensemble who support one another and the script with a depth of feeling that comes across clearly. Ellen Page, who plays Juno. carries the film. To put across the glib, clever, sharp-tongued, quick-witted teenager without making her artificial or obnoxious is quite a feat. Page inhabits the character fully and makes it her own, emphasizing her strength and maturity without ever letting us lose sight of her child-like confusion and vulnerability. The willfulness and sarcasm that could have been off-putting in less capable hands is appealing and amusing in Page's portrayal.
Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner as Mark and Vanessa Loring, convey the complexities of trying to find balance between work and passion, integrity and commitment, spontaneity and responsibility that is the heart of relationship. They expose their characters not as "right' and "wrong" nor "better" and "worse," but just as different, with different strengths and weaknesses, that create the potential for both pain and satisfaction in their lives. Garner very effectively puts across one of the most touching scenes in the film, as she allows her reserve to crumble in the face of her realization of the journey she is undertaking.
J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, as Juno's parents Mac and Bren, have a down-to-earth quality that doesn't patronize their working-class values nor sentimentalize them. Simmons plays Mac as a sympathetic soul who has clearly come to his current state through painful experience. Janney gives Bren - Juno's step-mother - a direct and feisty realism that is unclouded by illusion. They both show character traits including straight-talk, comically-ironic exaggeration and a proud independence that are mirrored in their daughter.
Michael Cera plays the father of Juno's baby, Bleeker, as a tender and gentle boy reaching to become a tender and gentle man. The chemistry he and Page develop communicates both the uncertainty and the sincerity of their feelings for each other in a way that creates a powerful anchor for audience engagement. His willingness (and ability) to convey Bleeker's confusion, embarrassment and vulnerability adds another important perspective to the web of relationships the movie examines. Olivia Thirlby plays Juno's confidante Olivia with an enthusiasm and focus that both reflects and amplifies the concerns and conflicts with which her friend is dealing.
There are a few false notes here and there. Although the cast do a brilliant job of making the dialogue sound natural and spontaneous, there are a few lines that are simply too "clever," too "hip" or too self-consciously slangy for their own good. They're out of keeping with the general level of the dialogue and actually sound "composed." They stand out precisely because so much of the script is so well written.
And the film gets off to a rocky start, with a sort of a prologue in which Juno confirms her pregnancy in a convenience store bathroom with a home-test kit. The banter between the characters in the scene, particularly Page and Rainn Wilson who plays the clerk, Rollo, is forced and artificial, and it takes a few minutes and the interlude of a whimsical title sequence to erase its influence and allow the movie to get off to a better start.
The production values are very good. Sets and settings are well designed, as the MacGuff home conveys a kind of cheerful, cozy chaos, the Lorings McMansion shows the tension between Vanessa's compulsive neatness and Mark's compulsive disorder, and Bleeker's bedroom reveals the interests and concerns of a teen-aged boy that are at once typical and highly individual. The use of seasonal exteriors to reflect the passage of time and the stages of the development of Juno's pregnancy and the story that wraps around it is an effective frame for the narrative.
The camera-work is fluid and precise, whether capturing the claustrophobic chaos of high school hallways, the airy, unassuming prettiness of the Bleekers' and MacGuff's middle-class neighborhoods, the cold, excessive spaciousness of the Loring's house or the movements of the characters - uncertain or determined, reluctant or enthusiastic - from one place to another. The music is a treat. Mostly contemporary indie-pop, spiced with classic selections ranging from The Kinks, The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth to Mott the Hoople, it lays down a quirky counterpoint to the narrative.
Reitman and his colleagues have done a good job here. They have provided the elements of an interesting and thoughtful film and melded them together to good effect. While it isn't ground-breaking or particularly challenging, it is a well-told and original story, lifted higher by some very fine performances from a talented cast, and that is still something worth going to the movies for.
That's my take on it. What's yours?