The Good: Great acting, Wonderful story, Interesting characters, Good DVD extras, Fun, Funny, Soundtrack.
The Bad: A little underdeveloped on the love story.
The Basics: Juno impresses the viewer as a romantic dramedy about a pregnant sixteen year-old who is carrying her baby to term for another family and the struggles that entails.
I have absolutely no problem with admitting when I have seen an actor or actress who intrigues me. Sure, I've been known to look up the works of Anna Paquin and after Get Smart (reviewed here!), I'm pretty much bound to catch some more movies with Anne Hathaway. Since seeing X-Men 3: The Last Stand I have been looking forward to seeing Ellen Page in more films. So, when I finally was able to catch Juno on DVD, I was excited. I was eager to see Juno and not just because of a potential very little crush on Ellen Page, the film's star.
In fact, the only thing that kept me from seeing Juno when it was in theaters (other than being poor) was I had read numerous reviews that compared Juno to Napoleon Dynamite (reviewed here!). I was not a fan of Napoleon Dynamite and, if anything, I went into that movie biased in favor of it. So, with Juno, I wanted to go into it and be happy and excited, but I had trepidation based on other reviews. For those who might share the same trepidations, the only things Napoleon Dynamite and Juno have in common are titles based on the lead character's name, limited budgets, similar layouts of the movie poster and the way young people seemed to have latched onto the films. The truth is, Juno is funny, witty and wonderful in all of the ways that Napoleon Dynamite failed to be.
And on DVD, Juno is even better.
Juno MacGuff is a sixteen year old who makes love with her boyfriend, Paulie Bleeker and finds herself pregnant. Intimidated by the prospect of getting an abortion, Juno decides to carry the child to term and she finds a couple who are looking to adopt a baby. As Juno and Paulie become estranged from one another, Juno finds herself visiting Mark and Vanessa Loring more often with updates on the baby that will be theirs. While Juno's parents are remarkably supportive and her best friend Leah sticks by her, Paulie drifts away from her.
But soon, Mark and Juno's friendship opens Mark up to the memories of the life he wanted and his trepidations about being a father begin to override his marital vows. As Juno's pregnancy progresses, she experiences the solitary life of being a teenage girl carrying a baby and works to figure out who she is.
Juno works on so very many levels that it seems best for me to start with what doesn't work. Juno quickly becomes a movie that is a subtle love story. It's all about discovering love after the sex and it is clever and smart in that regard. The problem with Juno is only in that it does not devote nearly enough time to the relationship between Juno and Paulie. In other words, while the movie works exceptionally well at defining Juno and exploring the nature and struggles of being an unwed teenage mother-to-be, it falls down when it comes to developing the relationship between Paulie and Juno. Their relationship is strained but what genuinely brings them back together is not clear or well-defined in the film.
Fortunately, we have DVD. In the deleted scenes, there are more scenes wherein Juno describes her feelings for Paulie and that works exceptionally well. Lacking that, I have to admit Juno is not a perfect movie. On DVD, it is close enough. As an avid cinephile who watches an obscene amount of television and movies for edification and review, it has been such a long, long time since I even had the pleasure of debating whether or not a movie was perfect or a near miss. Juno makes that a damn good debate.
What makes Juno work so well is that it is smart and unsimple. The plot is one that has not been overdone for theatrical films. Young woman gets pregnant might be a common soap opera conceit, but it is not one that has been translated to cinema with any frequency. So, it is fresh in that regard. But perhaps as important, the fact that the surrogate family and the pregnant girl develop a relationship is - to my knowledge - unique in films of the new millennium.
The realism with which the circumstances are presented is enhanced by the vivid and unique characters that populate the Minnesota town where Juno lives. Juno is a disaffected teenager who is brash and quite happy to do her own thing. She fearlessly calls up a clinic "to schedule a hasty abortion" and while it generates an easy laugh, it cleverly defines a girl who - despite being in transition - has a strong sense of self. Indeed, one of the hallmark concepts of Juno is that the title character admits to not knowing just what kind of person she actually is. What she is, though, largely, is actualized enough to not worry about others' perceptions of her and instead focus on figuring herself out. While that might seem dry and only worthy of small, independent films like Juno, it actually works in a very cinematic way.
Director Jason Reitman, who also directed the satirical and clever Thank You For Smoking (reviewed here!), presents Juno as a fearless character who parts the sea of students at her high school in scenes that work for more than just the movie trailer. Moreover, Reitman has a great eye for directing Diablo Cody's ideas from the most simple - like driving a toy car over her enlarged abdomen - to the fast and complex dialogue. Scenes like Juno getting an ultrasound with her stepmother and best friend are instantly memorable, as is a very simple scene wherein Juno's father Mac tells her his notions of love. Juno looks good and has a sense of movement to it that tells the story in a simple, straightforward and refreshingly romantic way.
The relationship between Vanessa and Mark is as well-defined as it can be given how few scenes take the camera off Juno. The thing is, it becomes instantly clear that Vanessa is the driving force in the young couple's desire to have a child. Mark - from his first scene - seems much more lukewarm about the concept. The reality of the strain having a child puts on a relationship is beautifully and entertainingly transposed for the viewers.
Moreover, the budding relationship between Juno and Mark keeps a sense of tension to the movie, which might otherwise seem slower than many would like. Cody's script infuses a sense of tension between the two characters that is vivid and is effortlessly brought out by Reitman and the cast.
On that subject, Juno is an easy winner for viewers. This is a movie that not only has an exceptional cast, but it knows how to use it very well. For example, Allison Janney, who established her dramatic presence on television's The West Wing (reviewed here!) with a sense of consistency appears in Juno is a role that is very different. She is allowed to be much more expressive and that range that she illustrates from her opening moments will please those who are fans. It's always refreshing to see actors and actresses we know do things in a way that they have not before.
Conversely, it becomes clear from his opening scenes that Jason Bateman was cast based on his work from Arrested Development (reviewed here!). Bateman does not so much wow us with anything he has not done before, as he impresses viewers once again with the notion that he is a master of the deadpan and portraying irony. Bateman is a cool, sly performer and his performance in Juno makes Mark memorable for a man who misses being part of the cool crowd. It is Bateman who defines that undertone to the character and it works beautifully, especially playing off Page's Juno.
The other noteworthy performance - outside the star - comes from Jennifer Garner. Garner reminds the viewer that she has range. Just as in Catch And Release (reviewed here!), Garner plays a woman who is struggling with complex emotions and Garner's ability to act, even without saying a word, defines her character beautifully. As Vanessa, there are scenes where Garner does such simple things as look into a wine glass while Mark is talking to her and it speaks volumes. Garner is impressive and Juno adds to her repertoire of memorable performances.
But it is, in fact, Ellen Page who is forced to carry much of Juno and Page is brilliant. As a young actress, there is often a push to be active and more sensual than anything else. Page devotes her time on screen to emoting with her eyes, delivering her lines with genuine wit and convincing the viewer that she is actually pregnant. She does all of these things magnificently. She makes the comedic aspects funny and she keeps the dramatic moments real. Despite my problem with the love story between Juno and Paulie being underdeveloped, the scenes where Page interacts with Michael Cera's Paulie are completely convincing. When Page delivers lines about her character's feelings she is absolutely real and she deserves every nomination and award she won for her performance as Juno.
On DVD, Juno appears packed with extras. The commentary track featuring Reitman and Cody is insightful, funny and worth listening to more than once. The deleted scenes are entertaining and the commentary that accompanies them to tell the reasons for their exclusion are engaging and worthwhile. There are enough bonuses on the DVD that make the viewer want to celebrate the movie and be satisfied with it as a work worth owning and rewatching over and over again.
Who could ask for more?
For once, it's easy to say I'm satisfied.
For other works with Ellen Page, please visit my reviews of:
An American Crime
X-Men III: The Last Stand
For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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