Friday, January 30, 2009
When I first saw Juno last January, I walked out of the theater knowing I'd seen a great movie, but I couldn't quite say why. I watched it again on DVD and felt the same way, still inexplicably in love with the film. Now, after a third time, I've truly sat down and concentrated, and I've at last come up with an answer that is so absurdly simple I should probably start using safety scissors because I can't trust myself anymore: Juno, to me, is a great movie because it makes me happy, 100%, smiling into the wind, bounce-in-your-step happy. It is so thoroughly deceptive in its depth that I realize know I wanted Diablo Cody to win an Oscar for her screenplay without even understanding why she so completely deserved it.
The film of course deals with the titular Juno, a 16-year old who seems to have spent all 16 of those years fashioning herself into an independent person. To all those who dismiss the film out of hand as Cody's attempt to "sound like a real teenager:" you don't get it. Juno speaks the way she does because she wants to be individualistic; it's her own personal ironic statement to the world. Yet these speech patterns only show her immaturity, so at the start of the film her dialogue overflows with the stuff. Over the course of the film, she slowly drops her speaking styles, and it's one of the many ways Cody shows her character growing up without once calling attention to itself.
Ellen Page plays Juno about as perfectly as a person could. She manages to act far beyond her years while playing someone younger than her, an uneasy balance that could have gone awry, but doesn't. That juxtaposition makes Juno such a singular and great character; she has the intelligence of someone far older, but lacks the actual wisdom needed to put it to good use. Page has established herself as an actress to watch, but she sets the bar so high with Juno I don't know if she'll ever top it.
Also turning in his best work is Michael Cera. It's easy to dismiss Bleeker as yet another awkward little geek à la all his other roles, but just watch him in his first real scene, when Juno tells him she's pregnant. He doesn't explode like Seth Rogen's character did in Knocked Up, nor does he break down. Hell, he doesn't even demand a paternity test. He knows the baby is his, and when you look into Cera's eyes you can practically feel his stomach jump. Then he accepts the news, and whatever decision Juno makes, and in an instant you know these two are a perfect couple; Bleeker doesn't hide behind stylized speeches and quirkiness, but he's every bit as strong, yet unsure, as Juno.
Juno makes an appointment to get an abortion, but before she can enter she runs into a classmate, Su-Chin, a lone protestor who spouts off some parroted talking points before catching Juno off guard with the claim that her unborn child "has fingernails." Juno enters to face a dismissive clerk and, as she fills out the forms, she notices all the scratching and tapping the other people in the room are doing with their fingernails and has an epiphany: she can't abort the baby, but she can give it to adoption. Some may read into this as a pro-life statement, but I see it as pro-choice; after all, one of the choices is to keep the baby, and this is Juno's decision.
Page and Cera alone are enough to support the film, but Cody and Reitman found an outstanding supporting cast who all bring their own originality to the part. Now, if Juno's speech didn't turn off haters, her parents' reaction to her pregnancy sealed the deal. Mac and Bren, Juno's father and stepmom, are played by J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, which alone makes them worth watching. But when they accept Juno's news with understandable shock, but without anger, it draws a very clear line in the sand. For me, it fits into Cody's depiction of maturity; Juno took the news with the fear befitting a child, but before the conversation evens ends they've decided to support their daughter.
The other supporting actors play as important a role as Juno's dad and stepmom. Juno searches through a local paper that has ads for couples looking to adopt, and she settles on Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), a yuppie couple who live in a suburban condo. Mac takes Juno to meet them, and there's a not-so-subtle yet never overstated feeling of the class gap between the two pairs. Vanessa is overjoyed that she will finally be a mother and treats Juno almost like the pregnant Virgin Mary. She wants nothing more than to be a mom, but cannot conceive one of her own; she says with infinite longing that Juno's her friends say Juno's in the toughest stage of the pregnancy and Juno, still acting childish (especially now that she's "solved the problem"), casually responds with "at least you don't have to carry this thing." Jennifer Garner deserved an award just for the flash of immeasurable pain on her face when she hears the line. The agreement is signed, and everything seems to have worked out.
However, Mark gives off a vibe from the start that he's not as thrilled to be a parent as his wife. Juno takes an immediate shine to Mark because he's a commercial composer who used to play in a rock band. There's a disturbing subtext to Mark, but really Bateman plays a role not dissimilar to Bill Murray's in Rushmore: like Herman Blume, Mark seems himself in the young protagonist, and the knowledge of how he turned out leads him to an existential crisis. When Juno finally wises up to how pathetic he really is, and it inspires her own maturation.
Vanessa and Mark form counterpoints for Juno's story and give the pregnancy an endpoint, but this is ultimately a story of a little girl growing up. At the start she masks her fear and adolescence behind her speech patterns and detached demeanor, but she lets out her true emotions in one brief moment early on when she admits "I don't really know who I am." In a bitter voice-over, she mentions her mother, who moved to Arizona after the divorce and sends her daughter a cactus every Valentine's Day. There's a lot of pain masked in Juno's sarcastic remarks, and her feelings of abandonment very likely led her to keep the child, even if she's giving it up for adoption.
As Mark and Vanessa's relationship hits a strain due to Mark's fear of growing up, so too does the relationship between Juno and Bleeker. I mentioned earlier than Cera played within his typecast but offered up something more, but that was only the beginning. At one stage Juno tells Bleeker that she's missing class for an ultrasound, and Bleeker begins to ask "Can I -" and catches himself, replacing it with "Should I come?" Bleeker, though afraid, handles the situation more maturely than anyone else in the film. Later, when Juno is at her peak of self-denial, calls her on her crap and, though he never explodes and never gets mean, the effect is absolutely devastating.
I feel perhaps I'm underselling the comedy of this film in favor of the brilliant drama, but then the drama is what sets it apart. However, it is, quite often, extremely funny. When Juno and Bleeker go to science class, their lab partners are also a couple, and they're in the midst of squabbling over the immaturity of the boy, who cheated on the girl after drinking a few comically weak alcoholic beverages. This scene is funny, but it also shows just how different Bleeker and Juno are, mainly thanks to Bleeker's tenderness. But my favorite gag was the running discussion about the term "sexually active" that continues to make me laugh.
Ultimately, the film is Cody's way of telling kids that they don't know everything. Most adults are quick to point it out, but they do so in a condescending manner, and usually to end an argument before they might actually have to think. But Cody is different; she never condescends because she respects the intelligence of teenagers, and she's never cruel in her lesson. Instead, she gently shows teens that they are only just beginning to truly live, and that life can be full of surprises. Juno, Bleeker, Vanessa and Mark may go through rough times, but we learn something about ourselves and about life by the end of it, and it makes me smile the more I think about it. Haters be damned: I wish there were more films as honest and heartwarming as this.