Sometimes a movie comes along that is so incredibly perfect, it makes me wish for some kind of scientific device that will allow me to dig through time, space, and matter to find the exact moment where the universe came together in order to make it possible. I suppose such a device would have far more profound uses, like finally settling the score about where all life came from, but such things are of no concern to me. More important to my existence is discovering how the hell you make a film as great as Juno.
Written by the first-time screenwriter with the greatest name in the world, Diablo Cody, and directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking), Juno is the feel-good movie of the year that you don't have to feel bad for feeling good about. It's going to be the movie everyone is talking about this season. It's reminiscent of the work of Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways), and the kind of family comedy everyone wanted Little Miss Sunshine to be but fell short of. (Come on, admit it, that movie got a little cheesy in the end.)
Note, though, when I say family comedy, I don't mean comedy for the whole family. I mean a comedy about family and one individual's struggles to find herself and her place within the unit.
Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is your average sarcastic, punk-loving teenager in a sleepy suburb. In a fit of adolescent boredom, she decided to have sex with her best friend Bleeker (Michael Cera). They have a band together, and he's a track star. Unfortunately, the worst has happened, and Juno has gotten pregnant. Deciding that the only option for her is to find a needy couple who can't have kids of their own, Juno finds a pair of attractive folks in the classifieds. Mark (Jason Bateman) is a rocker stuck in the 1990s who has hung up his Les Paul for the lucrative world of commercial jingles, while Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) is a prim businesswoman whose biological clock has an alarm that won't turn off. Juno thinks Mark is pretty cool, even if his taste in music is pretty lame, but she's not so sure about Vanessa.
On the homefront, Juno's dad (J.K. Simmons) is the loving parent whose own quippy sense of humor provided the genetic blueprint from his daughter's penchant for wisecracks. Juno's mother is long absent, checking in once a year on Valentine's to send her child a cactus plant as a token of her prickly love. In her stead are Bren (Allison Janney), a slightly spacey stepmom, and her even spaceier five-year-old daughter Liberty Bell (Sierra Pitkin). It's a weird family, no doubt about it, but it works in its way. Both parents are there for Juno, ready to help her through this crisis even when she's not willing to listen.
And Juno tends not to listen to other people quite often. Always ready with an amazing one-liner, she's got that teenage syndrome where she knows she's smarter than everyone else, and the fact that a lot of people consistently prove her right isn't helping. Ellen Page is nothing short of remarkable in the lead. Juno is a tough character to pull off. The audience needs to be pulling for her even when she makes it difficult to be on her side. This kind of character, when its done wrong, can be off-putting, deserving of a good smack more than she is sympathy. Page's unbending conviction and caustic charm make her the most adorable little curmudgeon to grace the screen in a long time. Possibly ever. Her journey over the nine months of her pregnancy, the life lessons and the changing emotional states, aren't simple plot points, but an honest, believable chart of a real girl's transition into maturity.
The actress is, of course, aided by Cody's script, which makes sure that the people around Juno are not actually beneath her. That way, even when she is giving them a hard time, she's not looking down her nose at them. Jason Reitman's casting is letter-perfect. You can't imagine any other people in these roles. J.K. Simmons has had a long career as a character actor, and his comedic timing is honed to laser precision. It's his warmth that really makes this performance special, though. I saw my own father in his portrayal, as did my friend I saw Juno with--which I guess makes Simmons kind of every dad in some way.
Also quite good is Michael Cera, who has a lock on playing the cute, awkward teenage boy. Arrested Development fans will be sad that he and Jason Bateman don't have any screen time together, but as opposing crushtastic forces in Juno's life, they end up playing off each other regardless. Cera's Bleeker character is perhaps the best example of how Juno manages to be quirky without being overly precious or in-your-face about it. Bleeker has poofy hair, and he wears sweatbands on his head and wrists when he runs. He also is constantly eating orange Tic-Tacs. These are side details that add color to the character without being what really defines him. Reitman and his production team decorate every inch of their sets with similar details, establishing Juno's reality with carefully chosen props that make sense for who these people are rather than just being convenient decoration that it was easy to get clearance for.
Juno is a smart, funny, heartfelt gem of a film. Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman love their characters and understand where they are all coming from, and so the story moves organically, teasing our expectations and surprising us with the emotional curveballs that get lobbed at Juno's unsuspecting head. Growing up is often far too easy in the multiplex, and so it's a joy to see a comedy that understands how difficult life can be and still see the funny business within it. Arty enough for snobs like me, but still with a crowd-pleasing sensibility that can endear it to a mass audience, Juno is going to be the champion to beat in the end of the year rush to get all of the studios' prestige pictures in theatres. I have yet to see anything on the horizon with the muscle to k.o. this teenage queen.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.