Sharpness and sweetness fuse splendidly in “Juno,” a teen comedy for mature funny bones and wit-craving minds. Keen, engaging and warmhearted beneath its surface cool, the movie is a small sparkler that merits serious attention amid the bigger-bang year-end fare.
Three fresh talents deserve top mention for the film’s appeal. Sophomore director Jason Reitman demonstrates the successful mix of zing and humanity that characterized his feature debut, “Thank You for Smoking.” Newcomer screenwriter Diablo Cody knows how to write accessible, amusing mordant dialogue. Twenty-year-old-going-on-sagedom star Ellen Page, seen recently in “Hard Candy,” creates a character who radiates not only intelligence this time but a compelling fallibility as well.
Page plays Juno, a smart, hip, nonchalant, suburban, working-class 16-year-old who gets pregnant from a first-time sexual encounter with track-nerd pal Paulie (Michael Cera). When an abortion clinic proves uninviting, Juno decides to carry the “thing” full-term. Assisted by best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), she handpicks, from the PennySaver ads, a seemingly ideal couple to adopt “it.”
They’re Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman), an upscale pair, and Juno bonds with Mark over mutual music interests. But as the couple reveal unseen facets of themselves, Juno must rethink her plan, deal with adult responsibilities and acknowledge the feelings that exist beneath her tough exterior.
Initially, the film seems like just another quirky indie that squeaks by on charm. Cody’s script sometimes gives the impression that you’re hearing a screenwriter, rather than the characters, talking. (“I’m calling to procure a hasty abortion,” Juno says.)
But as Juno’s pregnancy and related adventures progress, the film blossoms marvelously as several things: a teen comedy with a distinctively bright female protagonist, a resonant personal-awakening journey, an endearing romance and a character-rich human-connection pleaser.
Like Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking,” the movie isn’t as edgy as it thinks it is. But it knows the difference between sweetness and mush, and, save for a slight slip toward the end, it avoids the latter. An emotional charge fills the pauses as well as the talk. Everybody serves up surprises.
A terrific cast keeps things both on-target and off-kilter. Page’s Juno is a funny and poignant embodiment of a foolish kid one minute and a striving young woman the next. Cera, a Judd Apatow alum, makes the love story affecting. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney shine as Juno’s dad and stepmom — fabulous departures from your typical movie parents.
Starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner
Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Jason Reitman
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes