Sunday, 21 March 2010
Juno: The Cautionary Whale
Juno is the film that made two people in to piping hot properties. Firstly, Ellen Page, the young actress who plays the title character. Secondly, Diablo Cody, the film’s writer and one time stripper lady who won an Oscar for her wordsmithing of Juno, a small, offbeat but immensely charming film told in a visually as well as a verbally creative way by director Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman.
But even though I really liked Juno, I can certainly see it being an acquired taste for many. Looking at the boards and reviews on IMDB some people really do dislike this film. And there was me thinking the venom was entirely reserved for Cody’s follow up, the much-maligned feminist horror flick Jennifer’s Body, a film I also really like despite the countless hostile naysayers.
I get where Cody is coming from as a writer. At least I like to think I do. But I also understand how a lot of people will just find her stuff glib, annoying and utterly unrealistic. It’s not for everyone. The witty, quippy, pop culturally enhanced teen speak she invents does really seem to bug those who say things like ‘Oh but teenagers never really speak like that.’ True, most teens or adults don’t. But Cody isn’t writing a documentary here. She’s doing creative writing. Emphasis on the creative. The truth is that each new generation uses language slightly differently. They invent new words or use old words to mean new things. To my mind Cody is doing the same thing Joss Whedon did with Buffy and then later with Firefly. Or what Tarantino always does. She plays with and orchestrates language. She has fun with it. She gives it a rhythm and a meaning it wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have. Just saying her stuff is bad is like saying Tarantino’s stuff is bad because people don’t really speak like he makes his characters speak. Newsflash! In real life people don’t speak how almost everyone in movies or TV speak. In reality people mangle words, use wrong words, use slang, swear, give fractured sentences, make Freudian slips, talk over each other, forget what they were gonna say etc. Movies aren’t reality. A movie is an artificially constructed narrative. It is a form of art and entertainment. At best movies are a heightened sense of reality. And I for one love the rhythmic witty flow of Cody’s words. Especially when wonderful actors as there are in Juno deliver those words.
So what’s the story of Juno? A very simple one really.
A sparky, witty, sixteen year old girl called Juno Macguff (Page) finds herself pregnant by her quiet, timid, rather bewildered track and field dedicated friend Pauly Bleeker (Michael Cera) after engaging in what seemed like some good-idea-at-the-time sex. Knowing she doesn’t want to keep the baby, as she’s far too young and unprepared to be a mommy, Juno decides on an abortion. However, the bleak and decidedly grim clinic, plus a great Emily (Ginger Snaps) Perkins as its punky, flavoured condom obsessed receptionist sends Juno running out pretty darn quick. Plan A scuppered, Juno resorts to Plan B. Together with her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) she decides to find a suitable well-to-do couple to adopt the sprog when it finally pops out. Through some local small ads she finds Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) a yuppyish couple in their thirties living in a big house in the ‘burbs who are desperate to adopt a baby. Meeting the couple along with her supportive dad (the always awesome J. K. Simmons), Juno likes the pair and agrees to hand junior over when he or she arrives. Over the next few weeks and months, as she gets ever bigger and is nicknamed the ‘Cautionary Whale’ by her fellow students, Juno starts working out and re-evaluating her friendship with Bleeker while also getting to better know the adopting parents of her forthcoming tyke. But as the big day of baby delivery becomes imminent, Juno’s plans begin to unravel in rather dramatic fashion. And the clock is ticking, counting down fast to B-day. Just what is she going to do now?
At heart Juno is a simple romantic comedy/drama. It’s the story of a young girl who gets herself in to a situation that countless young girls have in the past and will continue to in the future. But Juno Macguff is a great character. Tough and strong willed, she takes charge from the get go. She is in control. She makes big decisions and doesn’t doubt them. She guides her own life all the way through. It is refreshing to see a story about teenage pregnancy that is neither preachy nor moralistic nor emotionally overwrought in any way. It simply presents the situation as is and the family then deal. Nobody erupts in anger or accusations or whatnot. Luckily Juno’s dad is a mellow and supportive man. Of course he tries to blame himself, in private asking his wife, Juno’s stepmom, “Is this my fault? Why did this happen?” To which his wife simply answers: “Teenagers have intercourse.” Simple, honest and true.
What makes Juno work as well as it does are two big things. Firstly, the fun, creative and witty script that doesn’t pander to any potentially moralistic issues or to where you might think this story would or should go. The dialogue is always lively and precisely constructed with lines that will make you laugh out loud. Take this little gem of a conversation that had me howling.
Juno: “...and the receptionist tried to get me to take these condoms that looked like grape suckers and was just babbling away about her freaking boyfriends pie balls! Oh an Su-Chin was there and she was like, ‘Hi babies have fingernails.’ Fingernails!!”
Leah: “Oh, gruesome. I wonder if the baby's claws could scratch your vag on the way out?”
And J. K Simmons’ classic: “Next time I see that Bleeker kid I'm going to punch him in the wiener.”
And then there is dialogue that sounds exactly like Joss Whedon had written it.
Juno: "Hey, Dad."
Dad: "Hey, big puffy version of June bug. Where you been?"
Juno: "Oh, just out dealing with things way beyond my maturity level."
But the dialogue would be useless if the right actors didn’t deliver it.
Which brings me nicely to Ellen Page.
In my mind this girl is one of the finest young actresses of her generation. She was awesome in Hard Candy and I loved her recently in Whip It. She was fine but wasted in X-Men 3. But here, in Juno, as Juno, she strikes pure solid gold. She is the film. It’s that simple. She’s in virtually every scene and just commands the screen with such natural charisma and effortless charm and skill. She makes you laugh out loud but always has a sweet vulnerability about her that makes you just want to take care of her. Possibly because, despite actually being in her early twenties, she still looks about fourteen and is so very little. But a big, big talent is bound up in that little package of cuteness. The North Americans have Ellen (she’s Canadian) and we Brits have Carey Mulligan, two young, luminous and immensely gifted actresses who are simply a joy to watch. But Ms Page is not alone in being fab in this film. The supporting cast is top notch too starting with the always brilliant J.K. Simmons as Mac, Juno’s dad. Simmons is a fantastic character actor with flawless comic instincts. He was, for me, one of the very best things about the Spider-Man films playing J. Jonah Jameson. Alison Janney plays his wife Brenda. Janney is a fine actress with plenty of kindly gravitas, who is best known for her role as CJ in The West Wing. Olivia Thirlby as Juno’s best friend Leah is also great. She is a bundle of carefree fun and energy, always ready with a sly comeback or witty retort. Michael Cera is very good too as Bleeker even if he is just doing the same schtick he always does. And Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner provide strong support as the baby’s adoptive parents to be. Bateman is playing it straighter and lower key than he normally does but is still very good while Garner is beautiful, poised, obsessive and just a little sad as the hopeful mom to be.
In the end, Juno is a great little film that tells a simple story with a lot of heart and a lot of very funny and creative language. Jason Reitman does a spot on job directing and the film always looks great with the passing of time and the seasons shown in some truly vibrant beauty. He also includes little flourishes such as animation and the odd quick cutaway to enhance a mood or a story point. But such things are few and far between and don't detract from his main directorial style of just letting the actors get on with delivering the script as written. But if nothing else Juno is worth seeing for the brilliance of Ellen Page, a young actress who is now one of my favourites and who will hopefully have a long and fruitful career. I am also looking forward to what Diablo Cody writes next. As far as I’m concerned the lady is two for two. And third times the charm.