It’s been a great time for American movies and actors, from Tommy Lee Jones storming to the top of his profession in No Country For Old Men and In The Valley of Elah to Robert Downey Jr. reinterpreting the heroic stereotype in Iron Man. But one thing which hasn’t been much in evidence on screen in the past year or so is happiness – least of all in most of the so-called comedies which have cluttered up multiplexes. There was quite a lot in Surf’s Up and Hairspray, especially when John Travolta finally got to strut his stuff on the dance floor, while the disarming and unexpected charm of Balls of Fury sent me out onto the streets with a cheerful buzz. But one of the reasons why Juno deserves every bit of the acclaim which it has received is that it’s one long dose of happiness from beginning to end.
Don’t get me wrong. Juno isn’t sugary sweet, it’s certainly not devoid of darkness and it’s not unrealistic about the problems of teenage pregnancy. But the feeling of pleasure which the film provides comes from its optimism about human beings and their astonishing capacity for love and survival in the face of whatever life throws at them. The film has been criticised in some quarters for being a pro-life commercial but I think that’s a fundamental misunderstanding. I don’t think Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody are remotely interested in that kind of socio-political issue, he’s interested solely in the decisions made by his characters and how plausible those decisions are. That could be seen as a flaw in the film – it’s a little hermetically sealed in its own world for some tastes – but in terms of how it serves the character study, it’s the correct authorial choice.
Juno McGuff (Page) is a sixteen year old who decides to lose her virginity to a long-time friend, Paulie Bleeker (Cera). Inevitably, owing to the casual nature of the sex, this leads to her becoming pregnant. Her father (Simmons) and stepmother (Janney) are disappointed but willing to work things out – a word of disenchantment from her beloved father carries as much force as a stern reprimand. Juno considers an abortion but eventually decides to offer her baby to a childless couple, Mark (Bateman) and Vanessa Loring (Garner) who have advertised in the local paper.
One of the key reasons why Juno works so well is the quality of the performances. It’s rare to see a film where every single casting decision was so absolutely spot-on, from Rainn Wilson’s one-scene role as a pharmacy clerk to the all-important central duo. As anyone who has seen Hard Candy will be aware, Ellen Page is a major talent and entirely convincing as a sixteen year old despite having turned twenty. Her youth clearly isn’t a bar to her talent because she has the ability to spin a good line into heavenly realms of quirkiness that reminds me of Jessica Lange at her best. Page is very likeable but she doesn’t sentimentalise the character of Juno and her spikiness may be off-putting to some viewers – although it strikes me as a realistic portrayal of a sixteen year old girl who is too clever for her surroundings and knows it. That does perhaps present a narrative problem since one would have thought that a girl as bright as Juno might have thought about contraception before so consciously planning to experience sex – but that’s a small quibble. Everything Page does is fresh, funny and credible.
If there’s a downside to Ellen Page’s performance, it’s that she tends to overpower Michael Cera whose portrayal of Bleeker is beautifully observed and very underplayed. That works for the character of Juno but has the unfortunate effect of making Bleeker seem like a more subsidiary character than he is. She also blows her friend Leah, played by Olivia Thirlby, off the screen, apart from a good running gag about Leah’s adoration of a particularly hirsute middle-aged teacher. But Page meets her match in the adoptive parents, played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. It’s no surprise that Bateman is a whiz at comic timing – he’s been demonstrating that ever since It’s Your Move back in the eighties – but he is unusually vulnerable and confused here, playing Mark as a free spirit trapped inside a relationship he neither wants nor understands. Jennifer Garner is more of a revelation. I’ve been aware of her work but have never been particularly impressed until now. Vanessa is an near-impossible character to play but Garner captures her frustrations and neuroses with great subtlety, spinning on a dime to turn her from an ice-queen into a thoroughly sympathetic and credible woman. The way our sympathies shift from Mark to Vanessa is one of the most ingenious parts of the script. I also like the way that Cody’s script circumvents a potentially sticky spot regarding the friendship between Mark and Juno – the film constantly seems on the edge of being more TV-Movieish than it turns out to be.
I particularly want to single out for praise two actors who are characteristically brilliant in important supporting roles; Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons as Juno’s parents. Both of them have been doing fine work on a regular basis; Janney in The West Wing on TV and Simmons in the Spider-Man franchise. But they are so completely convincing here that they deserve special mention. It’s rare to see a film where parents aren’t stereotyped, demonised or sentimentalised. Juno’s parents are good, kind and loving people who register their disappointment with their daughter’s decision but support her completely and I imagine that most parents watching the film will think, “I want to be like that!”
I’m not pretending that Juno is a perfect film. I had a particularly strong reaction against the twee songs which make up much of the soundtrack. Although the visuals are elegant, the staging is sometimes clunky and the screenplay is sometimes written in a style which more resembles a twentysomething’s idea of teen-speak than the language that teenagers actually use. But it would be unfair to harp on about the script’s problems when Diablo Cody has created such memorable characters and given them things to say which are so full of wit and surprise – there’s a moment when Juno’s stepmother sticks it to an impertinent ultrasound technician which makes you laugh while being genuinely touching in the way it establishes how she feels about her stepdaughter. Most of all, Juno sends you out making the world seem like a slightly warmer, kinder place and that’s not an achievement to be underestimated.
Juno was a huge success at the box office and is likely to be equally popular on DVD. Fox’s R2 disc presents the film beautifully and offers some interesting extra features.
The 1.85:1 transfer is progressive and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s a very strong image indeed with some beautiful fine grain and colours to die for – rich, natural and vibrant. There’s loads of detail throughout and no problems with artifacting of any kind. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is admirable and exactly what this kind of film requires. What I mean by that is that the dialogue is rendered clearly and cleanly, the music dominates where appropriate but is otherwise allowed to stay in the background and the ambient effects never intrude unnecessarily. It’s not a great surround experience – nor would you expect it to be - but the surround channels are used subtly throughout.
Although this is a single disc, the selection of bonus materials is generous. First up is an amusing and highly enthusiastic commentary track from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody. This has lots of information and no dead spots but the mutual pats on the back become a little tiresome by the end. Then we have eleven deleted scenes, some of which only add a very little bit to scenes already in the film. I particularly liked the sequence with the wheelchair-bound Mrs Rancik, ranting about Mexicans and “Catholic whore nuns” – leaving this out was a mistake I think, despite Reitman’s excuses about “tonal continuity”. There’s also a nice little bit added to the end involving Mark which adds a slightly bitter note to the ending.
In addition we get a gag reel – quite funny, especially Ellen Page’s inability to get one particular line right – and a “gag take” which is basically more of Rainn Wilson which may or may not appeal depending on your tolerance for him. The “Cast and Crew Jam” is hideously embarrassing and I couldn’t take more than a minute of it. Finally, there are featurettes devoted to the three main teen characters, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman. All of these have pleasantly frank interviews but the latter two people don’t add much to their commentary track.
All the extra features, including the commentary, have optional subtitles, as does the main feature. There is also an audio descriptive track available for the film.