Juno: Mainstream indie plays it safe
Juno is the independent film retort to the more mainstream Knocked Up, although Juno is hardly a scrappy seat-of-the-pants low budget wonder. It is directed by Jason Reitman, who made 2005’s fitfully caustic Thank You For Smoking, and it is released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. But in its choice of cast, music, and attitude, it runs closer to the sensibility of the dime a dozen teen misfit movies that ooze every year from the Sundance Film Festival. But the misfit in Juno is a teenage girl, a refreshing change from the awkward male geeks who populate Judd Apatow’s male-centric gross out comedies which, like his Knocked Up, are dressed up with shallow sentimentality and token fem-bots.
Juno, the title character here, is no O.C. extra. She is small, smart and smart-assed; sarcastic, sweet, quirky and much cuter than her thrift shop costuming and apple-cheeked make-up reveals. She has a brief moment of sexually active bliss with her sorta boyfriend Paulie, gets pregnant, and faster than you can say “Where were the condoms?” she decides to give the baby up for adoption, rather than have an abortion, which is the more logical, not to say, believable choice for a girl like Juno. Unlike Knocked Up, in which not a single character uttered the A-word, Juno actually asks about an abortion when calling the local women’s health center. But after a chilly greeting from the hostile and multi-pierced receptionist, with the image of her fetus’s tiny, sprouting fingernails scratching the indecisive itch in her head, Juno balks and puts an ad in the local PennySaver looking for a Mom and Dad for her kid.
Now don’t get me wrong. Juno is a winning film in many ways. Ellen Page, who plays our knocked up heroine, is confident, poised, and perfectly cast; and Michael Cera, one of the few tolerable actors in SuperBad, is likeable as the deer-in-the-headlights biological dad. Director Reitman skillfully unfolds a new truth with each finely timed, nuanced scene. Even the music, emo folk sung slightly off-key and played as if 4 of the 6 strings on the guitar have not been discovered yet, is charming and wistful rather than annoying. The movie’s storyline keeps curving and twisting without running off the road.
Juno is not predictable, but it is safe, and the deck is clearly stacked for likeability. I don’t know about you but I’ve never met a teenager with as much sass, wit, and rapid-fire comeback material as Juno, which makes her a screenwriter’s confection if there ever was one. The rigors of pregnancy, including the shunning by peers, are barely touched upon; and the film neatly avoids the darker, emotional moments any pregnant teen must face as well as the questions a young father must have about his level of responsibility and support. Juno is neatly framed by the seasons of the year, which means once she has had the baby it’s spring time. The child is gone and life is good. All is forgotten. Let’s be kids again.
I enjoyed Juno. I laughed in all the right places, and choked up a bit on cue, and I was able to see the film as a much-needed counterpoint to the frat boy shenanigans of Knocked Up, but I never felt like I got to know the real Juno, or the real Paulie, or their parents, or even the hostile, pierced girl at the Women’s Health Center. If that one character had been welcoming, comforting, and just a bit more competent, in other words if she had behaved like a receptionist at a clinic that performs abortions would really behave, rather than like a Hollywood concoction inserted to get laughs and kickstart the plot, then Juno would likely have gone through with the abortion, and there would be no movie. But with a few more real life touches, the filmmakers could have aimed a little higher and engaged our minds a little more and our funny bones a little less.