Tuesday, December 18, 2007


By Elise Nakhnikian

Juno is one of the best movies of a very good movie year, but it gets off to a slow start.

Like Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), the woman desperate to adopt Juno’s baby, the movie tries too hard at first, establishing its too-cool-for-school cred with a faux-folksy soundtrack and frequent dissolves into hand-colored rotoscoping reminiscent of those Charles Schwab ads. What’s worse, Juno (Ellen Page), her friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) and the hipster convenience store clerk (Rainn Wilson) who Juno chats up are all so glibly hip that, for the first 10 or 15 minutes, you might think the script had been written by a 16-year-old, not about one.

Then Juno shifts into gear, and we’re off.

When she wrote Juno, Diablo Cody was only about a decade older than her heroine – and probably still leaning a little too heavily on her adolescent shock-jock schtick. For those of you who haven’t already read too much about Cody, she’s a nice, middle-class Midwestern girl (she invented the name because her real one was too boring) who earned fame and fortune by spending a year as a stripper – the post-modern, feminist sort of stripper – and writing about it, first in a blog and then in a memoir.

Teen pregnancy, her subject in Juno, is another topic – like stripping – that isn’t much talked about in polite society, although it’s common as dirt. Cody and her director, Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman, adopt a tone of deadpan humanism that allows them to find the pathos in Juno’s predicament while mining it for a steady supply of laughs.

They were about 90 percent of the way there when they cast Page, the 19-year-old actress who plays Juno. Open yet guarded, self-confident but prone to wading in way over her head, boiling over with feelings but always struggling to look cool, kindhearted yet often scathing, Page’s Juno is a jumble of teenage contradictions with a rock-solid core.

Forever tossing off sardonic asides, Juno uses her sense of humor as a weapon and a shield. Sometimes she’s fending off things that can hurt her, sometimes she’s trying to act tougher than she feels. And sometimes she’s doing both at once, like when she tersely sums up her mother’s desertion of the family years ago. Mom’s out West now, she notes, raising three “replacement kids.”

Juno’s story tips toward comedy rather than tragedy thanks to the excellent parents who stuck with her. Her gruffly loving father is played by J.K. Simmons, whose face you’d probably recognize even if you don’t know his name. Her understanding stepmother, Brenda (the always wonderful Allison Janney) gets a couple of the movie’s best moments, including a fierce speech in Juno’s defense at an ultrasound clinic. No wonder Juno says she loves coming home after she’s been somewhere else for a while.

What’s not so easy for her to admit is how she feels about her best friend and the father of her child, Paulie Bleeker (Superbad’s Michael Cera, still looking about 12 years old). Juno and Bleek’s inability to tell each other how they feel is poignant – though it’s written and played with a light enough touch to make you smile. After all, as Juno points out in a humorously illustrated voiceover, everyone’s always crushing on someone unattainable in high school: the jock secretly lust after the “alternative” girls they torment in the hallways, while the cheerleaders the jocks are supposed to want chase after the teachers.

Cody provides less insight into the relationships between the adults in the story. I wonder if she was as clueless as Juno about what Brenda calls “the dynamics of marriage” when she wrote that screenplay. If so, she isn’t now, having married and divorced since then. She’s teetering on the edge of 30, too. Makes you wonder what she’ll be drawing from in her next project.

Writers always use great chunks of autobiography in their fiction. Some rework the material more than others, but they all do it. Yet those who openly draw on their experiences often get criticized for it, as if that somehow diminishes the value or artistry of the work.

Cody has come in for more than her share of that kind of criticism, but I hope it doesn’t discourage her. We need writers like her – explorer/observers who remain true to their own thoughts and feelings – to chronicle the lives of21st century American women.

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