Giving Up Baby
Fresh script, smart performances, and Ellen Page elevate teen pregnancy comedy-drama
In the new teen-pregnancy comedy Juno, Ellen Page plays an emotionally immature but highly articulate high-school student named Juno MacGuff who, a month after deciding to lose her virginity in a scheduled sexual encounter with her geeky quasi-boyfriend, Beeker (Superbad's Michael Cera), discovers she's pregnant. With only the counsel of her equally immature best friend, Leah (Olivia Thirlby), Juno quickly decides she is not mother material quite yet and, over her unreliable hamburger phone, schedules a "hasty abortion." Fortunately for pro-lifers like the naive protesting student outside the abortion clinic, who insists Juno's baby already has fingernails, she can't quite go through with it and decides instead to put the baby up for adoption. It's not until after she's already found prospective adoptive parents in a PennySaver that the teenager breaks it to her father (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney) that she's expecting, followed immediately by assurances that she's in control of the situation. The irony, of course, is she's not. Juno, if anything, is about the struggle to behave like an adult long before you actually have the faculties to bear such responsibility.
This struggle, while not as overtly dramatic as Lifetime television would have imagined it, is the heart and soul of the whole movie, though, in the end, we're not all that sure Juno has grown up that much. Barely able to drive, her greatest concern isn't the child she's carrying, but whether or not true love and marital happiness even exists. After all, her parents divorced (her mother's entirely absent), and it doesn't take long before she realizes that her baby's prospective adoptive parents, Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), aren't nearly as happy as their giant, perfectly decorated home and wonderful smiles suggest. Cynicism about Juno's potential for romantic success appears to be stunting her emotional growth, too, most specifically in her vanished relationship with Beeker. Convinced no relationship has a real chance, she's pushed him away.
Mark, with whom Juno develops a bizarre, verging-on-inappropriate friendship, offers an interesting glimpse into the girl's possible future. Though he's a successful adult on the surface, he's not all that much more mature than Juno; trapped by his youthful rock 'n' roll dreams he never fully exploited, he spends all his time trying to survive the oppressive maturity and maternal needs of his wife. In fact, Vanessa recognizes this and forces him to contain these dreams in one room of the house, sort of a lockbox to keep his immaturity from infecting their day-to-day lives; at first, it sounds like a bitchy, controlling maneuver, until you realize Mark is a pretty cowardly human being. He's the end result of the cynicism that's crippling Juno. The counterpoint to Mark, thus, is Juno's all-too-loving and attentive father, who talks and listens to his daughter, placing her needs above his own disappointment in her. He's been burned by love, too, but recognizes the precipice at which Juno is standing and proffers the hope for a real chance at happiness. For Juno, there just might be.
Juno, from director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) and novelist-turned-first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody (Candy Girl), is most remarkable because of its aversion to politics, social statements, and judgment. Teen pregnancy can be a touchy subject, but the filmmakers focus attention on the personal stories with indifference for dictating private philosophies. The movie's only real hang-up is Cody's dialogue; it's as radically different from the overwhelming bulk of Hollywood's output as Quentin Tarantino's script for Reservoir Dogs was. Eccentric, quirky, precious; all of these adjectives describe her language, uttered by characters with such casual ease that it actually sounds authentic after, oh, about 10 minutes. Until you acclimate yourself, though, Juno can't help but sound like a funnier version of Dawson's Creek. There's nothing natural about it, but that's the trick; in this artificial world, Cody is able to express human emotions more deceptively than other screenwriters. Cody also benefits from a superb cast, fronted by the 20-year-old Page in what will probably become her breakout role. Partly because of Cody's writing and partly because of Page's performance, every actor in Juno, no matter how good they are-and they're all exceptional-revolve around the titular character like minor moons. That's no small feat for an actress so young.