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Juno

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/05/07 00:00:00

"Ellen Page. Watch that name."
5 stars (Awesome)

There are moments in "Juno", especially early on, when I worried about its title character being one of THOSE teenagers. You know the type - the self-aware and self-referential ones who talk like thirty-year-old screenwriters who went to private schools and are nostalgic for the John Hughes movies of their youth rather than any actual memory of growing up in a small town.

Fortunately, the cast and crew generally manage to avoid those traps. Yes, writer Diablo Cody writes Juno as ostentatiously quirky at times - an early bit where she sets an easy chair up on her would-be-boyfriend's lawn seems like an awful lot of effort for little payoff. Fortunately, Juno is played by Ellen Page, who genuinely looks sixteen and grasps that Juno is far more child than adult. She's a clever and witty kid, but what she thinks is clever is often just in bad taste. Despite all the sarcasm and music snobbery, she's not mean; she's generally trying to do the right thing. She's also hilarious. Of all the things Page does, perhaps the most valuable is letting what are often precisely chosen words come spilling out of her mouth without making Juno seem particularly bright.

The bright girls, after all, generally don't wind up pregnant at the age of sixteen. There's no question that the father is Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), and initially there's no doubt that Juno's going to have an abortion. Something that the one teenage protester there says gets under her skin, though, so she tells her father (J.K. Simmons), stepmother (Allison Janney), and best friend (Olivia Thirlby), that she's going to carry it to term. She's even managed to find a couple to adopt the kid - sure, Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner) seems kind of uptight, but her husband Mark (Jason Bateman) seems cool.

Ellen Page is terrific, and she has to be - she's in every scene, with maybe one or two exceptions. She doesn't have to carry the whole thing herself, though - she gets a lot of help from the supporting cast. J.K. Simmons gives Mac MacGuff a dry delivery that's similar to Page's as Juno, though a little resigned and more mature; Allison Janney is humorously more frantic as Bren. Olivia Thirlby and Michael Cera are a ton of fun as Juno's friends. Cera does charmingly dorky better than any young actor out there, and he's as good as ever as Paulie; Thirlby's Leah is a bundle of enthusiastic eccentricity. Compared to them, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman look almost muted, though they wind up two of the more fleshed-out and interesting characters.

Just because how they relate to Juno provides much of the film's dramatic weight doesn't mean they're not funny, though. Juno doesn't have any characters who aren't, at one point or another, funny - even people at the school who just stand there, talking to someone else while Juno looks at them, tend to make for funny visuals. This seems like an obvious thing, but it's surprising how many comedies don't realize that every character has to pull his own weight in terms of making the audience laugh, or else they're just clutter. Juno the film is remarkably free of clutter, both as a comedy and as a story about Juno MacGuff: Everyone involved is funny, and there's very little in the story to distract us from Juno's tentative steps toward adulthood.

Both writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman are still a little rough at times - their use of music is a bit heavy-handed, for instance, though not as much as the chair motif in Juno's narration. They do manage the potentially awkward turn the story makes down the home stretch without missing a beat, and Reitman has a knack for finding good images. He hasn't yet put all his tendency toward smugness behind him, but Juno suffers from that much less than Thank You For Smoking did.

And, to be fair, "Juno" might just be "pretty good" if it were a smoother, more polished work. It's a fine line between the title character being well-intentioned with a lot of growing up to do and her being stupid and unlikeable, even with Ellen Page's great performance It's the ability to stay on the charming side of that line that makes "Juno" one of the most enjoyable comedies of the year.

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