Movie Review: Juno
By Matthew Huntley
January 8, 2007

What do you mean, you liked Arrested Development better than Alias?

I have a feeling a lot of people will love Juno. It possesses an offbeat and irreverent sense of humor, with some good performances and strong emotional beats. But this isn't why people will love it. People, especially young people, will love it because Juno is an outspoken heroine with a satirical and cynical point of view. She's fresh, modern and open-minded. But she can also get on your nerves.

For me, Juno is a movie worth liking, but I didn't love it, and it's not one I'll remember for very long. I guess I expected more since it's ridden such a wave of acclaim upon its debut at the Toronto Film Festival. But, to my dismay, much of the movie is flat just when it thinks it's being witty and edgy.

Ellen Page (Hard Candy) plays the titular character, who tells us, "It began with a chair." The "it" she refers to can be many things, but it's mostly the story of how she fell in love. It's also the story of how she became pregnant at 16. One day, she and her band mate, a pasty, nerdy kid named Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), have sex on a lazy boy in her parent's basement. She claims she performed the act because she was bored, but Bleeker knows she's lying.

Juno initially wants to have an abortion but a protestor outside the clinic tells her the baby already has fingernails, which makes Juno think twice. Her friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) suggests putting it up for adoption and the two sift through the local Pennysaver looking for wannabe parents. They find Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), who, for reasons unknown, can't have children of their own. Vanessa wants nothing more than to be a mother, but Mark is less enthused.

During her pregnancy, Mark and Juno strike up a peculiar friendship that borders ever so slightly on romance. He composes music for TV commercials and has a quirky taste in horror movies that Juno appreciates. Their time together makes Juno believe she's doing the right thing, and it was nice to find her character wasn't written as someone who goes back on her decision to give up her baby. That would have been too easy. After learning about a certain decision from another character that I won't reveal, Juno's struggle in the movie comes from not knowing whether true happiness between two people is possible. In a tender scene between her and Vanessa, Juno learns true happiness can, in fact, exist, but she's not certain she'll ever find it.

There are many things to praise in this movie, including Ellen Page's spunky performance. After Hard Candy and now this, her career is on fire and it's plain to see it will only get hotter. Page is funny, cute, smart and quick-witted, but I'm not sure how good of an actress she is. The adjectives I listed describe Ellen Page the person, and so long as she plays herself, she'll succeed in the movie business, but it'd be nice to see her act and become a character outside her own nature.

The acting is the movie's best quality. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are splendid as Juno's father and stepmother, who are thankfully allowed to act and react to their daughter's situation in ways that are more truthful and believable than we expect. So often when young girls get pregnant in the movies, the parents are ready to yell, go crazy and lay blame, but here it was refreshing to see the parents support their daughter, love her, and want to help her with her decision. That's more along the lines of how I'd expect real parents to behave.

As the young and wealthy couple, Garner and Bateman play two characters who don't really want to be married, and credit should be given to production designer Steve Saklad and cinematographer Eric Steelberg for placing these sad individuals in white, pale surroundings. The imagery shows them as cold and distant to each other, and they're both perhaps under the impression a baby will solve their problems. I actually wish the movie had given us more of Vanessa and Mark because they're so fascinating. I wanted more of their history and dialogue.

The problem I had with Juno was its desperate need to be quirky and original. Diablo Cody's screenplay seems too self-congratulatory in regards to it being hip, anarchistic and nonconformist. It, along with Jason Reitman's direction, feels the need to constantly remind us of its attitude. I had the same problem with Reitman's Thank You For Smoking, a satire on smoking that prided itself too heavily on being more biting and acerbic than it really was.

Cody's screenplay so openly calls attention to the characters' idiosyncrasies that I felt like she didn't think the audience was smart enough to get it on their own. For instance, Juno has a telephone in the shape of a hamburger, which is not something you see everyday and thus becomes an object of Juno's personality. But then the movie has Juno talk out loud about the telephone, reminding us not to forget it's a hamburger she's holding.

The movie does the same for a lot of other things, including an obsession Allison Janney's character has with dogs; or Bleeker's bright yellow (and too short) running shorts; and Bleeker's love for orange Tic Tacs. I think such qualities are funny and neat, and they give the characters individualized traits, but the screenplay violates the unofficial rule that if the camera can show us something, dialogue does not also need to tell us about it. The shorts, Tic Tacs and hamburger phone are obviously made to call attention to themselves, but having the characters talk about them goes too far. The screenplay should have been more subtle and mindful of the audience's intelligence to get it.

Another problem was some of the dialogue, especially from Page, who speaks in a way that patronizes the audience. She says things like "hells yeah," "it's like, totally...," "tune-idge," and "Thundercats are go!" There's also narration like, "She looks like a hobbit - you know, the fat one from 'The Goonies.'" That's all fine except it's spoken to make us automatically think Juno is so cool and savvy. The movie tries too hard to make us like and side with its anti-hero.

When it's not trying so hard to show off, Juno works as an unconventional coming-of-age story. There are enough genuinely warm and funny scenes within it, especially those involving Garner and Bateman, that prevent its head from getting too big. The movie was obviously made by smart people and it's got a modern and outré feel about it, but too often it reminds us of just how smart, modern and outré it is. The filmmakers should remember to give us more credit.