It’s time for the q-word again. Every year, it seems, there is some audience-favorite-quirky-little-indy — that category is now a genre of its own, like thriller and romantic comedy. 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine was called “this year’s Napoleon Dynamite. And in 2007, ever since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Juno” has been called this year’s Little Miss Sunshine. All three films are modest little independent films, though the two most recent have, if not A-list superstars, certainly established A-list actors. All three are small stories about people who are not glossy, air-brushed, homogenized, safe, and stories that are not formulaic or easily classified. The movies are filled with telling details and some intriguing messiness in character and plot. Hollywood’s word for this is “quirky.” When it’s done right, it is endearing, engaging, and unforgettable, filled with people we want in our lives.
Juno is one of those people. She is sixteen, and when we meet her, she is walking around drinking a gallon of Sunny D so that she can take a third pregnancy test in the hope that this one will come out negative. She shakes the stick with its pink plus sign and the store clerk tells her dryly, if not unkindly, “That ain’t no Etch-a-Sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be undid, home skillet.”
This introduces us to Juno and her life, and also to first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody (nee Brook Busey), who brings back the wisecrack. Back in the 1930’s and 40’s movies crackled with sharp, clever, witty lines. I don’t want to sound like Norma Desmond snarling “We had FACES then!” but back in those days, movies had dialogue that was memorable. Now, if we’re lucky, we get catch-phrases. Cody’s script is filled with smart, funny, very specific lines that define the characters and tell the story. But the delivery is as much a requirement for a true wisecrack as the writing. “Juno’s” characters perfectly capture that understated slightly rat-a-tat-tat dialogue that harks back to the lines characters used to toss off in movies about chorus girls and private detectives, unlike most studio films that, influenced by television, juice up delivery as though they’re waiting for a rimshot or a laugh track.
And that is one reason the sweetness of the film sneaks up on us, catching us by surprise. Cody and her characters are all very cool and understated. Juno, who is discovering that she became pregnant the first time she had sex with her friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera of Arrested Development and Superbad).
Being a teenage girl, the first person she tells (calling on her hamburger phone) is her best friend (the terrific Olivia Thirlby as Leah). She decides to get an abortion, but at the clinic she changes her mind and decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. So, she has to tell her father and step-mother (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney), whose matter-of-fact response gives us an idea of where Juno comes from. But they care about her and are very supportive. When Juno picks out a couple from the local Penny-Saver, her father tells her he is coming with her. And when a sonogram technician acts snippy, Juno’s step-mother comes down on her so hard they are all escorted from the facility.
Although Juno tells her father she does not really know what kind of girl she is (after he says h thought she was “the kind of girl who knew when to say when”), she is self-possessed and sure of herself. She walks through the halls of the high school in an increasingly straining Slinky t-shirt. She tells Mark (Jason Bateman), the husband of the adoptive couple, that his taste in music and movies is inadequate, but she is open-minded and happy to find that she likes his choices.
Mark and his wife Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) would be easy targets for the scorn of a girl like Juno, who prides herself on her edgy taste. But something in her is drawn to the glossy, dust-free surfaces and solid graciousness of their home. Abandoned by her own mother, she likes the idea of placing her baby with a couple who are solid, even dull. Boring is reassuring, settled. But as she is drawn to their magazine layout lifestyle, Mark finds that Juno reminds him of what he is missing in his own life. The movie finds its own heart when Juno has to learn that cool is not always cool, clean is not always simple, and families don’t always look the way they do in movies.
Juno tells Paulie that he is the coolest person she has ever met. “And you don’t even have to try.” “I try really hard, actually…” he tells her. This is a movie that tries very hard to get it right and makes it all look cool on the way there.
Parents should know that this is the story of a pregnant teenager who looks for a couple to adopt her baby. There are some explicit sexual references and situations and characters use some strong language.
Families who watch this movie should talk about how Juno’s feeling of being abandoned by her own mother influenced her decision about what to do with her baby? Most of the people in this movie handle difficult situations without getting very upset with two exceptions – what are they and why?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the classic screwball comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Napoleon Dynamite. They might want to take a look at some of Juno’s favorites like the (very graphic) horror movie Suspiria, Mott the Hoople, The Stooges, and The Moldy Peaches.