2008-01-28 • Volume 2 • Issue 4

Not Just a Teen Movie

In a movie season laden with blood, violence and atonement, it came as a surprise that the low-key comedy Juno was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. There is no doubt, though, that as a triumph of humor and compassion Juno is worthy of these accolades. The film does what any great comedy should: it raises the hearts of its audiences and sends them out of the theatres laughing. The film should probably not be sold or labeled as a comedy, however — or as a family drama, or a romance, or anything else — because its primary strength is the consistent subversion of each of these genres. Categorizing Juno as one thing or another trivializes its genius; it would be a way of dismissing a film that encompasses nearly everything. Some movies make us laugh; some are moving or beautiful. A few are profoundly true to the human spirit, and still fewer help us better understand ourselves. Juno, though, does every single one of those things.

Let’s be frank: Juno is a comedy about a pregnant teenager. But this is not a teen movie, and here is where the film’s chain of surprises begins. There will be unexpected plot twists, naturally, as well as expected plot twists which fail to occur, but the glory of Juno is that viewers are left wondering not only what happens next, but exactly what kind of movie this going to be.

It begins as a youthful screwball comedy. We first meet sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff (played to absolute perfection by Ellen Page) chugging SunnyD so that she can keep taking pregnancy tests — after all, those first couple positive results may have been flukes. They aren’t, and suddenly for poor Juno the hunt is on to find a way out of the impending disaster. She decides against an abortion and begins to look in the Pennysaver for couples seeking to adopt a newborn. As her friend puts it: “Desperately seeking spawn… Right next to the terriers and iguanas and used fitness equipment.” For a film about teen pregnancy, things seem to be going along a smooth, pleasantly funny track.

Gradually, though, the film’s tenor begins to change. We start sailing into more serious waters, even into melodrama in Juno’s conversations with the boy who got her pregnant: shy track-and-field star Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera of Superbad). Everyone calls him Bleeker, and he is quite socially awkward, which serves to make him all the more adorable. He initially appears powerless in Juno’s presence. In fact, he doesn’t actually understand why they had sex in the first place; it was her idea. Now that a baby is on the way, their scenes together are infused with something that feels suspiciously like pathos, but by the end of the film our new expectations of a touching drama have been subverted, as has the possibility that Juno is just a clever romantic comedy. Somehow the movie defies any attempt at categorization, and this blend of unpredictability and originality represents a tremendous strength.

The twists and surprises do not come at the expense of believability or flow, however. On the contrary, viewed in hindsight, the movement of the gloriously original plot was not merely plausible but inevitable. It simply seems right, feels natural. Juno’s nine long months could not have proceeded any differently, and the movie’s final resolution is one of the most fulfilling conclusions in recent memory.

Another measure of Juno’s greatness is the truth of its characters, its situations, and even its one-liners. Its characters feel like real human beings, people who share our faults and virtues and hopes and worries. Yes, Juno is a mighty peculiar girl. She listens to Mott the Hoople and the Moldy Peaches, and jokes to her baby’s adoptive parents that in China “they give away babies like free iPods.” But, thanks to Diablo Cody’s fantastic screenplay and Page’s magnificent performance, Juno is able to steal our hearts. So are her parents (played by superb character actors J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney), and for that matter so is everyone else. All the characters in the film are sympathetic, not because they all do good things—they don’t—but because we come to understand them, and love them for who they are. This alone—the fact that we as viewers care about everyone in the story—is a truly rare feat of great storytelling.

The film thus wins us over with its exceptional humanity and its wisdom, two elements which have long been lacking in comedies, dramas, and a lot of other entertainment, for that matter. There are many small moments in this film which seem to freeze time and put fundamental truths into words, without the obviously labored effort of less talented screenwriters. Think of the scene where Juno tells her parents that she is pregnant: her father remarks, “I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when.” Poor Juno’s reply is simple and saddened: “I don’t really know what kind of girl I am.”

Juno is by no means perfect. Its soundtrack is not particularly interesting, and some of the lyrics are distractingly irrelevant. Juno’s caustic wit can seem a little too bizarre at times, and occasionally works against the mood. Never mind, this is a film that inspires laughter, reflection and love. Juno demands repeated viewing: in fact, its genius is much more obvious the second time around, when we know what to expect and can better appreciate the work’s careful construction.

This is a hilarious movie, true. It is brilliantly acted, true. It manages the rare miracle of staging an affecting conclusion without resorting to syrupy clichés. The characters are all lovable, the pacing perfect, and the story delightfully unpredictable. There are scenes of powerful honesty and rare compassion. Yet Juno adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. In this quiet masterwork, the audience is not uplifted by stirring music or a heroic speech or a climactic final showdown; we are left in wonder at the profundity of a simple human story magically told. 

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