Written by Fiona, a contributor to The Stub.
Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman.
What’s it about? After a one night stand with her best friend, Paulie Bleeker, 16 year old Juno MacGuff discovers she is pregnant. After some consideration she decides to give the baby up to a deserving couple and hence she finds Mark and Vanessa Loring, an apparently perfect couple. It soon turns out though that not everything is as rosy as Juno wants it to be…
The story of a teenage girl, who gets inconveniently pregnant and has to figure out what to do next, is far from fresh. But it is a story which Diablo Cody, as screenwriter and Jason Reitman, as director, attempt to tell without bringing too many overripe clichés to light. They veer dangerously close to being unoriginal and comparisons with other comedy films of the alternative/indie genre (see Napoleon Dynamite) have already been voiced. Juno only manages to creep out from the shadow of predecessors, oddly, not by keeping it real but by keeping it unreal. It’s more mismatched fairytale than real life drama. It’s a tale which revolves around Juno McGuff, a cynical smart-ass teen, whom reality never quite bites. And who we never quite grow to like. Even if she can make us laugh.
Whatever we might think of the main character, she’s certainly not boring. And the film itself is no dull ride. The sharp dialogue keeps things progressing along with a snappy tempo, the sharp edges softened by the occasional poignant, sweet moment. Reitman knows when to let the camera linger and when to shake things up a little with a stylish montage moment (complete with a cool backing track) or an interesting perspective. In one scene, a hooded preoccupied Juno is a lone figure walking along the street when the sea of high school runners parts around her. There’s plenty of eye candy. Even if the characters may not be much to shout about, the film is never short of colour. From the red/yellow flash of the running team to the sky blue shock of Leah’s house, every effort is made to keep things bright.
The same could be said of Juno McGuff, played by Canadian actress Ellen Page, who holds her own as the cynical, somewhat caustic teenager. She rarely seems to wallow in any sort of extreme emotion, be it sadness or happiness. Everything just flows around her like the running team, while she remains unmoved, still quipping one-liners and bearing her wit. She appears at times more like an arrogant 16 year old boy with her overtly confident attitude and tactless comments. Not to mention her walk, which, particularly in the opening animated credits, seems almost a swagger? While it’s not easy to compare her to many earlier teen incarnations, Juno is ever so slightly reminiscent of Julia Stiles’ character in Ten Things I Hate About You. Stiles also had us torn between admiration and dislike, with her sharp words and tendency towards being downright mean at times. The difference being, she was a little easier to like. Unfortunately for Page, Juno is also not completely unalike the character she herself played in Hard Candy, where as a smart, steely teenage girl she turns the tables on an older man who thinks he has control. Although there is no doubting her excellent performance in Juno, and indeed in Hard Candy, it would be good to see Page make a complete departure in her next role.
And at times it feels like it would be good to see Juno herself take a valium. Her stream of endlessly sarcastic and frequently inconsiderate remarks sometimes wears a little thin. In the scene when she first meets the adoptive parents, you feel yourself wishing she would just shut her trap. As the film progresses, you start to wish for some outburst, some departure from her devil-may-give- a-crap tone. Is it possible, such a major thing as being unexpectedly pregnant could affect her so little? But this is where the fairytale reveals itself. This isn’t normal life. Juno makes remarks that cut to the chase, and seem to suggest she’s smart. But then she seems surprisingly off the ball at times. At one point, Vanessa, the adoptive mother asks Juno “how far along are you?”, referring of course to the bump. But Juno just shrugs and replies “Oh I’m a Junior”, wandering past the obvious. Cody seems to be at pains to point out how insignificant the pregnancy is to Juno, even at the cost of downplaying her main character. Some features of the world Cody and Reitman have created, also seem at odds with reality. We never understand why Juno’s best friend is Leah, a cheerleader type who irks Juno with her interest in teachers. Or why her other friend is Bleaker, who seems a little nerdy and perhaps a bit uncool for Juno. It seems to be a high school of jocks (Juno even name checks one herself) and other cliques but yet she can have friends from different stratas, without so much as a comment. And there must be plenty of teens getting pregnant at a typical American high school. So why does Juno become the pariah? She is stared at in the hallways. At times her parents talk like her, firing snappy sentences like bullets. There are plenty of things that don’t fit in Juno. But that’s fine. It’s much easier to enjoy the tale once we stop looking for the mirror it’s meant to be holding up to life.
Aside from the occasional overdosing on a cynic pill, as a character, Juno is marred by her licence to voiceover. With Juno telling the tale, this becomes one of those films where all the characters are slotted into neat boxes. Their personality is summed up by Juno in one or two inadequate points. There is Bren, the stepmother and her love of dogs; Bleaker and his mild addiction to orange flavoured tic tacs; Bleeker’s mother, who, we are told “may have been attractive once” but now resembles a hobbit, and Juno’s friend Leah, as mentioned, mainly seems to have a thing for teachers. While condensing characters is definitely amusing, it’s a little disappointing to find our alternative heroine doing this so readily. Juno seems to be a bit short sighted about how significant and complex the people around her really are. But again, maybe this is all the better to highlight an array of characters who provide more than just props for comedy and a foil for Juno. Instead of being fully formed characters from the offset, they become characters in development as the film moseys along. Her friend Leah may seem a bit silly at times, compared to the tactless and straight-talking Juno, but she does reveal herself to be perceptive and supportive. She is involved with Juno and the pregnancy from the very beginning; being the first to find out about Juno’s impending condition and possibly one of the first to see the baby pop out (urgh). Vanessa, the adoptive mother-to-be, initially appears to Juno as the boring other half of the cool guitar playing Mark. On the surface, she is highly strung, desperate for a baby and possibly a little unoriginal for Juno’ tastes. But as the film draws to its conclusion, she too fleshes out as a character and we and Juno are inclined to reassess our first perceptions. Bleaker, at the beginning is nothing more than the slightly dorky guy with the silly headband, following Juno’s lead and suggestions. And by the close, he is…er…exactly the same but a least we know he has a voice. Even if it is mostly just speaking inside his own head. Bren and Juno’s dad definitely end up proving themselves to us, and to her. Bren is quick to advise and equally quick to defend Juno. Her dad doesn’t get angry, he gets supportive. We start off looking grimly at the selection of insignificant characters, and maybe end up figuring out what they mean to the tale. Perhaps, it can be said that Juno is just like a typical teenager; starting off without a care in the world (or for anyone in particular in the world) but ends up getting wise to the people who care about her. She realises who’s really important.
So this is a little tale, which can’t claim to be hard-hitting, or true to life. The girl at its centre could be called a damn hypocrite or a riddle wrapped in an enigma (or just a teenager maybe), whichever you’d prefer. The characters round the edges take a while to register, and even when they do, they sometimes still feel like single faceted personalities more suited to a fairytale. The poignant moments are there in between the laughs but are they really enough? How has Juno McGuff really dragged an essentially nifty tale peppered with sharp dialogue, into such limelight?
There is naught else to credit but the twist in the tale. Quite simply, reality doesn’t bite Juno quite how we might expect. It is Mark, the guitar toting husband of Vanessa who provokes the only real turmoil in Juno. His dreams of being more than just a “sell-out” composer for commercial jingles and what he is prepared to sideline provide more of a reality check for Juno than the pregnancy itself. In the adult who is declining the trappings of adulthood, she sees the importance of being a teenager when you are one, and keeping an eye on the future you’ll eventually have to embrace. Her character arc doesn’t stretch itself; she goes from acting self assured and cynical, to…well acting self assured and cynical but now with the knowledge that she doesn’t have her personality or priorities set in stone. By the end of the film she may have not necessarily learned anything other than the fact that she doesn’t know herself as well as she thought she did, but whatever about her shortfalls, there’s something refreshing about a teenager admitting this as a matter of fact. When her father retorts that he “thought she was the kind of girl to know when to say when”, she replies “I don’t know what kind of girl I am”. And honestly, what 16 year old does? At least Juno isn’t a film that pretends we can learn it all as teenagers. To learn a little is just enough.