17 January 2008

Juno

I'm normally allergic to the independent darling of the year. They usually come with a cheeky behind-the-scenes story (screenwriter Diablo Cody was a stripper!) and get championed as the Little Movie That Could (take that, big studios!) despite the fact that they usually mistake oddball dysfunction for character and plot. Combine this aggravating annual ode to hipness with the fact that, damn it, I wanted to be this year's cheeky behind-the-scenes story (blogger hits Hollywood big time!), and I usually hate these flicks before I see a single frame of film.

Things didn't look well during the first few minutes of Juno. More specifically, things didn't sound well during the first few scenes. The film is front-loaded with an avalanche of oddball verbiage, with every character speaking in some strange, ironic, quirky vernacular. Like, dude, for shiz. I'm a big fan of euphemism and irony and wit, but this was like being forced to listen to an inside joke that's evolved between friends to the point of not being funny anymore. Yes, that is a back-handed complement to the nuanced realism of the writing, but my bigger point is that it's off-putting. For realz, home skillet, it totally annoys my balls off, yo.

But then something happens. Pregnant Juno can't go through with an abortion, decides she'll put the baby up for adoption, and drops the bomb on her parents. Quirkiness abounds. Her father puts her down, telling her she isn't the kind of girl that gets pregnant. "I don't know what kind of girl I am," she says. It's a telling line, delivered with the perfect mix of remorse, exasperation, and heartbreak by Ellen Page. It turns out Juno isn't merely a collection of overtly ironic catch phrases, she's a living, breathing teenager trying to make sense of the world.

Juno has a heart. The film turns out to be terrific, smartly walking a fine line between biting sarcasm and heart-warming sentiment. After these opening scenes, the screenwriting stripper finds a gear that works. The writing and the fantastic performance by Ellen Page really capture the voice of a precocious teenager who is certainly smart but also inexperienced -- a person who wants to be better than the thoughtless, hormonal teen who wants to know what drove adults to coin the phrase "sexually active." There's another telling scene when Juno meets the couple she hopes will adopt her baby, and her nonchalance about the situation quietly wounds Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), a woman who yearns so badly to switch places with the smart ass pregnant teen poking fun at her home decor. Beneath her eloquent sarcasm, Juno's just an emotionally-unstable kid.

The distinct difference between the first ten minutes of the film versus the remainder is that the opening moments are trying so hard to reach for laughs that aren't there. The rest of the film settles for telling a story and letting the comedy come out of the characters and the situations. Juno's battle of wills with her step-mother is hilarious, as is her sometime best friend, sometime boyfriend admitting that he tries very hard to be cool. There's an awkward sweetness to Juno's relationship with Mark (Jason Bateman), Vanessa's musician husband who'd like nothing better than to be in his twenties again.

The Juno-Mark relationship is the key to the film. It unfolds in a way that confounded my expectations. The way it forces Juno to reflect on what she really wants is surprising, and it really brings the film's emotional undercurrents to the forefront. I loved the way the film builds to these later moments where the audience begins to fully understand what kind of girl Juno is just as she's discovering this for herself.

I especially appreciated the unforced nature of the story. It avoids cheap melodrama and lets the characters breath. Thankfully, Juno isn't too hip for its own good. It's a little gem of a character piece that's thoughtful yet biting, sardonic yet warming. For shiz.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Could not agree more! I had the same reaction to the opening scenes of the film, and started to get a bit disappointed... but a few minutes later it just "worked." I don't know if it was because the writing got better, or if the audience got "in" on the inside jokes at that point. Anyway, it was a great movie.