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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Film: "Juno" Births Future Stars

Page in Juno

Juno seems on paper like it belongs to the Judd Apatow family of films, bringing together as it does one preggo woman as in Apatow's summer hit Knocked Up and the brilliant Michael Cera as in his other summer hit Superbad. What it actually turns out to be is a tour-de-force for young actress Ellen Page who plays the title character, the sardonic 16-year old know-it-all girl who guys like me fell for in high school. She's Winona Ryder in Heathers (Oh Winona -- what happened??) only instead of being saddled with the high school bad boy who's genuinely bad she's got a bun in the oven. The other star here is Diablo Cody, the stripper-turned-screenwriter who brings a wry sensibility to a screenplay that always manages to balance on the fine pinpoint of not too cloying yet not too cynical.

Page brings layers to her performance that serve to heighten both the comedy and the pathos in Cody's writing. What starts out as a character that is almost too flip and hip becomes something much more real -- Page allows us see the hard protective shell covering her intense feelings.

In this she is ably abetted not just by Cera but by a stellar supporting cast with special kudos to the always wonderful J.K. Simmons (his turn as a white supremacist on HBO's prison drama OZ still makes me worry that he might shiv or anally rape someone whenever he turns up on screen -- Spiderman especially) as Juno's father and Allison Janney who is terrific as her stepmother. So many movies that are set in the world of teendom (Heathers included) skimp on the adult characters but these are sympathetic, rounded portraits.

Juno ultimately decides to carry her baby to term and give it to a couple who want to have a baby of their own, a decision that seems better realized and more truthful about the choices women have to make here than it was in Knocked Up. This brings in yet another set of ace perfs from Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner.

Bateman's complicated relationship with Juno and with his own wife leads to some of the best and most powerful scenes in the film. Garner at first seems cast as a one-dimensional brittle yuppie but she ultimately becomes a source of great sympathy for the audience -- this is some of her best acting to date. I'd be remiss also if I didn't mention Olivia Thirlby who plays Juno's best friend Leah with comic brio and winning sweetness.

All of this is key to papering over one of the film's few flaws -- sometimes the pop culture references coming out of Juno's 16-year old mouth sound more like the referents of an older generation -- Cody's .

The film itself rolls along snappily, suggesting that director Jason Reitman has his papa's (Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman) gift for comedy but with a better grasp of how to integrate more serious themes -- even more than in his debut Thank You For Smoking.

Juno also has a killer soundtrack packed with ex - Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson and Belle & Sebastian songs and references to Iggy and the Stooges and Sonic Youth.

Juno gets 4 out of 5 moldy peaches:

Here are Bateman and Cera talking about the film:

Here's Cody and Page:


DavePress said...

I absolutely have to agree with your assessment, Noah. Yeah the movie tended to have a plot that wreaked of a after school special from fifteen years ago, but what brought it over the top was the good dialogue for the main character's age as well as the stellar cast.

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