As portrayed by actress Ellen Page, Juno MacGuff is one of the more unique cinematic creations gracing multiplex screens in quite a while. Going in, most audiences know that Juno is about a 16-year-old girl who decides, mostly out of boredom, to become sexually active with her good friend Paulie (Michael Cera). Their union results in a pregnancy neither is prepared for.
However, what many audiences may be surprised to discover is how much truth the film mines from this common situation-largely through Page’s performance.
Page reveals Juno to be a young woman who is outwardly brash and cynical, always willing to assert her individuality with her step-mother Bren (Allison Janney), who loves her cats and keeps the ashes of a dead relative in an urn by the front door. However, Page still manages to convey a sense of vulnerability that makes her feel three-dimensional.
Juno, for all her fast talk and bravado, is still acutely aware of the reaction awaiting her once her parents receive the news. “Pregnant? With a baby?” Mac, her dad, exclaims as if the word might have become a colloquialism for some other state of being. Upon hearing that honor student and track team member Paulie is the father, Mac turns to his wife and asserts, “Whoa, didn’t think he had it in him.”
What follows that aside is a deeply heartfelt conversation between parents and daughter that exemplifies what works about the film: It doesn’t rely on circumstances surrounding the characters to make it work. It works because the characters are so well drawn and the screenplay by Diablo Cody takes the situation with just the right ratio of comedy to drama to make it feel new.
After discussing with her parents the options available to her, Juno decides she is too young to care for the child by herself. Therefore, she initially chooses to go for an abortion. She eventually changes her mind as the result of a series of circumstances I will not reveal-but I marvel at the way the movie manages to argue her case in a manner that doesn’t feel preachy.
Later, she decides to put the child up for adoption by finding suitable parents for it. She meets prospective adoptive parents, Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). They live in a beautifully decorated house in the country. Garner, who gives the best performance of her career here, is consumed by the idea of having a child. She insistently asks for assurance that Juno will not renege on the agreement to allow them to adopt the child after Juno gives birth. Batemen plays a would-be rock star who writes jingles for commercials and is consumed with ’70s punk music and bass-playing and finds much in common between himself and Juno.
Juno follows its main character through her entire nine months, showing her hidden apprehensions and concerns, even as she continues to hide behind her sarcastic, unaffected exterior. The film sets up the audience for a payoff, then goes in a different direction, in the process revealing more truth about human nature than most “teen comedies” even attempt.
Bren, for instance, is at first portrayed as the oddball step-mother who rides Juno too hard and talks incessantly about topics of limited interest to her. Then look at the scene where she has a sitdown with Juno about why it’s not in the pregnant teen’s best interests to spend too much time with the Lorings.
At that moment she transcends the stereotypical step-mother and becomes a mature adult giving the precocious, but still callow Juno a lesson in social protocol. It is one of the truest moments in the film.
It should be no surprise that, given its critical accolades and surprising box office ($58 million in its first five weeks), Juno has garnered such strong Oscar buzz, but the film should inspire another type of discussion: How to produce a truly funny, insightful and emotionally moving comedy.