Juno

February 7, 2008

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OUT: NOW 

A murky paddle through the swampish underbelly of life on the streets. Shameless L.A cops finding their filthy pleasures on the beat. STI-ridden, bulimic transvestites throwing up in a scummy public toilet. That’s perhaps the kind of brutal and revealing debut screenplay you’d expect from a stripper-turned phone sex girl-turned blogger- turned writer. Yet Diablo Cody eschews the obvious in favour of a snappy teen comedy that turns out to be more than the sum of its parts.

Echoing last year’s concept of choice paraded ably by Knocked Up and Waitress, here we see a much younger victim of the unplanned pregnancy. 16-year-old Juno is not only young but the modern day anti-hero, with pipe-smoking, Iggy Pop-listening and crushing one-liner-delivering all part of her intellectual rebellion. After ‘getting bored’ and incidentally ‘getting pregnant’ by her awkward mate Paulie, Juno gives the finger to abortion and attempts to secure the perfect parents to raise her impending spawn.    

Our first introductory scenes to the fiery femme are a little uneasy and disjointed, leaving us confused about the tone of the tale to come. The folky soundtrack hits hard with its distinctiveness from the opening credits, but efforts to Napoleon Dynamite-ise the arty visuals here and throughout the film undersell the unique charm and originality of what’s on offer. But once the premise has been clumsily set up and the little foetus begins to gestate, the comedy comes as fast and as ferociously as the warm chunks of heart.

But let’s get back to Juno herself. Ellen Page, please stand up. In perhaps the most luminous lead performance since Audtrey Tatou’s Amelie, Page lives and breathes this role. The spunky (in more ways than one) dialogue erupts from her cute little mouth like it’s never been written. This is without doubt as much a credit to scripter Cody, but Page fills Juno with the necessary bite and often down-right meanness, but it’s in her moments of clarity and the life lessons she is forced into learning that we really see through her eyes. To catch a glimpse of the naivety behind the apparent maturity her brassy exterior suggests is pure movie magic. She has the ability to completely expose herself (easy now) and it’s something that can’t be taught.

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But the casting director’s field day isn’t over yet. JK Simmons, known primarily as Spiderman’s desk-thumping newspaper boss is a delight as Juno’s understanding dad, and West Wing‘s Alison Janney makes a real character of a potentially also-ran step-mum. Jason Bateman and more surprisingly Jennifer Garner are touching as the adoptive couple, and Michael Cera riffs on his socially retarded Superbad character with skilled understatement. Everyone is clearly honoured to be working on the project, and as an ensemble piece this is the business.

Cody’s Oscar-nominated script is truly worthy of the gong, not only creating an iconic female warhorse in Juno but re-inventing teen comedy with added brains.

Her underground roots shine through in her writing, acutely-observed and sharply funny with no hint of pretension. We may be treading familiar ground here, but the quirky delivery and subtlety of style ooze originality, aided enormously by Jason Reitman’s unfussy direction. By the final countdown all structural messiness has been ironed out and we’re behind each character whole-heartedly, in love with Juno but wanting everyone to win. Cody’s experiences haven’t bittered or tainted her worldview as you might expect, rather her faith in people and wry wisdom on the human condition transfer beautifully to the screen.

On reflection it may be a harmless addition to the movie canon, but look for the soul in Juno and you may well find it makes a lasting impression. Diablo Cody is certainly one to watch: a fresh and feisty voice still un-muddied by the industry is a rare thing, and her future output is to be eagerly anticipated. And Ellen Page is simply electric- here’s hoping someone finds her another role as perfect as this.

THE CRUNCH

4 . 5 / 5  kicks to the stomach                           

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