All of the elements appeared to be in place: the Nowheresville USA setting; the cartoon-like introduction; the overly bright colour palette; Belle and Sebastian, Moldy Peaches, Sonic Youth on the soundtrack. This had all of the hallmarks of one of those overly-kooky indie films which seem to be churned out for the Sundance market, almost like a factory line of production. In recent years this has given us the likes of Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine, Thumbsucker, Rocket Science, Napoleon Dynamite, and Running With Scissors, which have emerged into this post-Wes Anderson sphere filled with overly-stylised characters, needlessly hip soundtracks, and humour so deadpan that sometimes it is easy to forget to laugh.
Not that all of those films above were bad; Garden State was good, but could easily have done without the annoying kook of Natalie ‘don’t call me Hirschlag’ Portman; Little Miss Sunshine was also enjoyable, if a little cloyingly over-characterised at times. It’s just that there is now the idea that whimsy and more-indie-than-thou posturing can be a substitute for a decent script, and properly fleshed out and real characters the audience can care about. Thank heavens then for Juno. First-time screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman have managed to weave together the antidote to all of this mediocrity; a warm, touching picture, with a razor-sharp wit, and a cast of characters not assembled from some Sundance-by-numbers character archetype kit, but ones who seem like real people.
The film starts with the 16 year-old Juno MacGuff and friend Paulie Bleeker about to have sex, sex which ultimately ends up with our young Juno accidentally falling pregnant. The assumption on Paulie’s part is that her having an abortion is the sensible idea, but her trip to the clinic leads her to reconsider. Several columnists and pundits in the US media have pointed to the film being part of a new wave of ‘anti-abortion’ films, citing Knocked Up and Waitress as two other prominent examples. What utter rubbish. Anyone with half a brain could see that Juno is agnostic on the debate – this isn’t 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, folks.
Juno eventually decides to put the baby up for adoption, and locates a suitable couple in a newspaper ad, ‘near the adverts for used gym equipment’ as her friend Leah points out. They are Mark and Vanessa Loring, he a musician with whom Juno strikes up an immediate rapport with, and Vanessa extremely eager to be a mother. Everybody appears to benefit from the deal. But there are hints of things not quite right; Vanessa is maybe a little too eager to have a child, while Mark seems less than enthusiastic; and is there a chance that Juno would reconsider once she completes the full term?
To merely detail the plot points is to miss out a lot of what makes the film such a joy to watch. Ostensibly the situation is a simple one, but it is the individual characters, as well as the dynamic between each of them, that gives the film its depth. At the centre of it all is the title character, fleshed out wonderfully by the ever-blossoming Ellen Page. Her Juno MacGuff is smart, quick-witted and fast-tongued, with a dry, sarcastic sense of humour. But for all her bravado, as the film develops we can begin to see that she is also rather lost; for all her coarse language and haughtiness we get the sense that she is without any form of compass – ‘I don’t really know what kind of girl I am’, she concedes at one stage. Page’s performance is terrific, striding the emotional tightrope with the consumate ease of an actor twice her age.
What is also refreshing about the film is that the secondary characters are not merely there to make up the numbers, and seem to be almost as fully formed as Juno herself is – when she reveals the pregnancy to her father and step-mother, their reaction, after the intial shock, is a pragmatic one, offering practical advice and support; their response is a human one, not a melodramatic one. The dynamic between Juno and her friends of the same age is also a natural one, in particular with her best friend Leah; this dynamic recalls that of the two girls in Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff’s terrific film about growing up, emotional isolation and trying to find meaning in life. This is certainly one of this film’s key reference points, and perhaps aesthetically there is also a touch of American Splendor about the it.
I have said quite a lot already without even mentioning how fantastically funny the film is; cinematic comedy can so often be forced, but Juno is nothing of this sort, the laughs coming surprisingly thick and fast, but never feeling like an inserted afterthought; I particularly enjoyed the critique of the phrase ‘sexually active’ – never again will I hear those words without thinking it utterly absurd. A lot of ‘comedy’ films try too hard to show us overly comedic, or overly ridiculous characters with which to force us into laughing at; Juno has that rare lightness of touch where we just laugh instinctively. And it makes it look so easy.
There is simply too much to say about how great the film is, and most of it is difficult to fully articulate to anyone who hasn’t seen it. My first instinct after watching it was to watch it again immediately, because I wanted to be with those characters again, to go through Juno’s nine months of pregnancy with her all over again, laugh at all of the jokes again, and to watch again how this wonderful film manages to tell its story and evoke its colourful little world so effortlessly brilliantly. I’m not sure I can recommend it any more highly than that.