Expect the Unexpected From 'Juno'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007

Thinking of "Juno" as just a teenage comedy would be a truly patronizing misstep. Though it centers on the emotional uncertainties of a 16-year-old girl, and though it's laugh-out-loud funny, it's anything but genre-fried hokum. In fact, it transforms an outwardly mundane story line into something extraordinarily affecting.

Written by Diablo Cody, a fresh and provocative new voice in Hollywood, the movie seems to write its own genre as it jaunts along. Following the unconventional but levelheaded reactions of the teenage Juno (Ellen Page) to her unexpected pregnancy, it introduces us to an endearing character with cleareyed focus, who uses irony to cope with her overwhelming issues.

"I am dealing with things beyond my maturity level," she says at one point, clearly smart and savvy enough to understand that. And her journey through the turbulence of adult-size decision-making is -- by her tenderfoot standards -- something of a moral epic, with postmodern punch lines as a sort of philosophical aside for herself, and us.

Her pregnancy occurs as the result of an impulsive liaison with her sort-of boyfriend Paulie (Michael Cera), an adorable geekster who runs track, chomps Tic Tacs and seems to need herculean will to muster the courage to speak. They may be sweet on each other, but she soon decides they're parentally challenged.

After briefly toying with an abortion -- she runs from a clinic after learning fetuses have fingernails -- Juno decides to find a home for the impending baby. The ideal candidates? The seemingly perfect young couple Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), who plan to give the child a life Juno can't.

If this scenario smacks of "right to life" consciousness to some, "Juno" has no such agenda. Juno makes her choices as she sees them and, no matter what our personal beliefs, we respond to her pluckiness and snappy humor, even during the occasionally bleak moments.

"I'd like to procure a hasty abortion," she says with an ironic jovial tone when she calls that clinic. What's funny isn't the seeming callousness of the remark but her euphemism-busting candor, designed to shock the receptionist at the other end of the line. Mincing words is presented as almost as lethal as the act itself.

Page, the Canadian actress who put the perfect combination of chilly rage and innocence into the pedophile-targeting avenger in "Hard Candy," makes this and other lines serenely amusing thanks to her soft cadence and baby-faced gaze. Her Juno could be a distant cousin of Enid and Rebecca, the gothic-minded teenage girlfriends in 2001's "Ghost World." But Page imbues her character with an urgent -- as opposed to an ironic -- heart, even at her quippiest.

"You should have gone to China, you know?" she says, when Mark and Vanessa complain about their lack of luck adopting a kid before they met her. "Because I heard they give babies away like free iPods. You know they pretty much just put them in T-shirt guns and shoot them out at sporting events."

She mimes one of those guns as she speaks. It's almost impossible not to fall in love with the delicate gesture.

What made last year's runaway indie hit "Little Miss Sunshine" so appealing was its family of vibrant characters caught up in what amounted to a talent-show farce. "Juno" does that on an even deeper level with characters whose behavior and conversation seem more real, including the goofily adorable Paulie (Cera was in "Superbad," and its most charming asset) and Juno's devoted and proudly unsophisticated father (J.K. Simmons).

"Did you ever feel like you were destined for something?" Vanessa asks him.

"Yes," says Juno's dad. "Heating and air conditioning."

Screenwriter Cody, the cult blogger whose book "Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper" documented her year with the strip-club pole, proves in "Juno" that a good story is a good story, no matter who's the central character or what the genre. And she teaches us to forever ditch our preconceptions about such fuzzily defined notions as "girls," or "young people."

Juno (91 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row, Landmark's E Street and AMC Loews Georgetown) is rated PG-13 for profanity and sexual content.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company