November 02, 2007

Juno

Juno is the answer to movies like Ghost World and Napoleon Dynamite, which think that an off-kilter, heavily stylized universe filled with quirky characters who craft a lexicon out of pop culture references and ridiculous catchphrases is enough. From the first shot and first line of dialog, this film follows all of the conventions that made those films so celebrated. But here, finally, real people emerge from under all of the artifice. The protagonist with her stylishly outdated cultural vocabulary could have stepped out of MTV's old loser-chic hit "Daria", but strip away the verbal flourishes and Juno still succeeds as a girl with all of the overwrought drama, passion, false assumptions and optimistic naiveté that comes with being 16 years old.

And unlike the armies of dysfunctional and often antagonistic families in previous indie portraits of suburbia, Juno was raised by a father and stepmother who, despite a steady flow of biting insults, never let her forget for a moment that she is loved.

The film begins with a chair where, we quickly learn, Juno fornicated for the first time only time with her track star best friend and band mate — a boy so timid he's practically non-verbal. Three pregnancy tests soon prove that his sperm were a good deal more assertive than he.

So Juno, surrounded in her well-worn bedroom by artifacts that range all the way back to birth, calls up her girl friend on her hamburger phone and asks what to do. Her friend recommends an abortion, but a surprising bit of information from a girl outside the clinic ultimately changes her mind. The nine month pregnancy becomes one of the most perfectly executed coming of age stories I've ever seen, in which our protagonist learns a great deal about who she is, what she wants and what she already has.

Ellen Page, who still looks far younger than her age, wields the unconventional and sophisticated dialog with remarkable ease. Her performance is bright and friendly and remarkably open; when Juno unintentionally makes some devastating social faux pas Page's complete refusal to acknowledge them maintains Juno's innocence.

As Juno's understanding of the world broadens, my perceptions of the characters surrounding her expanded as well. What begin as exaggerated caricatures reveal themselves over the course of the film to be no less complex than Juno herself.

Michael Cera in particular manages to make timid track star father-to-be Paulie Bleeker remarkably expressive. Juno talks incessantly and Bleeker barely says anything; yet their dynamic proves surprisingly egalitarian: he sees right through all her chatter and she intuits what he does not say.

I waited the entire movie for the adoptive father-to-be to assert himself to his domineering O.C.D. wife and left the theater almost wishing he hadn't.

Allison Janney transplants the fiery intellect and acidic wit of her West Wing performance to the opposite end of the economic spectrum as Juno's stepmother, a woman who communicates in insults but manages to be comforting as well cruel. Juno's father speaks in the stark, blunt language of a former military man. But somehow, his words carry another meaning that is clear as glass to his wife and eldest daughter. He is a blue collar man that is allowed to be wise, intelligent and sophisticated.

Juno is the rare art house comedy that treats its characters with the dignity afforded to people instead of the expediency afforded to punch lines. It is also the rare art house comedy that remembers even unconventional families are built on a foundation of love. The stylized elements, as employed here, reinforce the film rather than support it. Kimya Dawson's oddly affecting anti-folk suspended-adolescent duets scattered throughout complement the picture well. Juno operates on a far stranger plane than director Jason Reitman's feature-length debut Thank You For Smoking, but the result is a tighter more focused final result. I can't point out a single misstep, and the final product is probably my favorite film of 2007 so far. (****)


No comments: