Jason Reitman | 92 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13
Juno followed in the footsteps of films like Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine to be the token Little Indie That Could among 2008’s Best Picture nominees. It was also the highest-grossing film on the list, no doubt thanks to America’s abundant Christians thinking it was all about an anti-abortion message. I’m sure these conflicting facts (the indie-ness and top-grosser, not the Christian thing) say more about the Oscars’ nominating form in the past decade than they do about Juno.
Fortunately, there’s enough to Juno to allow it stand up for itself. The most discussed aspect is Diablo Cody’s screenplay, with its idiosyncratic slang-laden dialogue and accusations that every character speaks the same. The first is true, the latter is rubbish, and one has to wonder if whoever thinks it watched beyond the first ten minutes. Most of the film’s teenage characters speak similarly… in that they use the same bits of slang, have similar speech patterns, employ a similar sense of humour — you know, like groups of teenagers tend to. Their related adults speak broadly similarly, but also differently; the higher-class couple Juno chooses to adopt her baby to speak differently again — but none are pathetically “I am trying to sound different”-different like you can find in weak writing. It’s just natural. I struggle to see how anyone can honestly say that all the characters “speak the same” in a way that isn’t true to life. Perhaps Cody has generously made Juno and her fellow teens wittier and quicker than the real-life majority, but this is a scripted drama and that’s what happens to your hero characters.
Cody’s dialogue, and what the cast do with it, are the film’s standout aspects. It’s quite a wordy screenplay, so it’s good that it’s a joy to listen to. The realistic overuse of slang by some characters occasionally greats, but the plentiful laugh-out-loud beats more than make up for it. The “I wish I’d say that” quality in some of Juno’s responses to familiar situations quickly make her an identifiable, memorable and loveable character, expertly played by Ellen Page — lead roles like this and Hard Candy show she’s one to watch, and add another mark against X-Men 3 for wasting her talents on such an insignificant (in the film) part.
Every supporting part is equally pitch-perfect: J.K. Simmons’ endlessly supportive father; Allison Janney’s stepmom, granted a gift of a rant at an ultrasound operator; Jennifer Garner’s earnest, desperate wannabe-mother; Olivia Thirlby’s teacher-loving best friend. Jason Bateman redeems himself in my eyes from his not-Marc-Warren turn in State of Play, while my pre-judgement of Michael Cera (Superbad? Year One? They sound dreadful) is half erased by being good as an appropriate-but-still-niggling character (Mr MacGuff and Leah summarise it best: “I didn’t think he had it in him.” “I know, right?”)
The film’s success in America is slightly baffling, which is why I merrily attribute it to Juno considering an abortion and then turning away. There’s underage sex, swearing, numerous displays of teen independence, divorce, love of rock music and horror films… All that’s missing from a Middle American Mom’s worst nightmare is drugs (there’s no violence either, but we know them there yankees love a bit of that). The whole thing worries the boundaries of its 12 certificate, I’m sure (being a recent film, the BBFC explain/justify), not that such things affect its quality as a film.
The backlash against Cody’s screenplay had me all prepared to find Juno a samey, wannabe-cool and lacking experience, but it isn’t. It’s consistently funny, occasionally moving, and only infrequently irritating (usually when it comes across as stereotypically indie). As the comedy-indie entry in the Academy’s 2008 choices, its worthy of its predecessors, and I consider that praise indeed.