It all starts with a chair. Or rather, it starts with Minnesota teenager Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) reminiscing about a chair. The chair's sentimental value is inextricably tied to the first time she had sex with her friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera, from Arrested Development and Superbad), the only time actually, and now the chair has been discarded and Juno strongly suspects she must be pregnant. Not that she's going to accept a thing like that without double-checking.
A dark horse Oscar contender - and don't be surprised if it carries off some significant goldleaf statuary - Juno is a sharp, spiky teen comedy with such an audacious voice it's practically got its tongue down your throat; then the movie subtly dials down the attitude to develop into a surprisingly affecting coming of age movie.
Screenwriter Diablo Cody (not her real name!) is a quite the character in her own right, and the media has been all over her in the US since people got a peek at Juno at the Toronto Film Festival last September. A former pole dancer and stripper, Cody has talked about her desire to write a screenplay reflecting teenage girls as she knew them, and not as they usually appear on our screens. It's a cinch that there is a lot of Cody in Juno: she's precocious, hip and culty (she's into Dario Argento, Iggy Pop and the Mouldy Peaches); with a worldly-wise candour that she wraps up in a snappy line of cynical slang.
Almost everyone else in the movie shares this smartsy verbal tic, from her dad (JK Simmons: "Liberty bell, if I see one more Baco on that potato, I'm gonna kick your monkey ass.") to Rollo, the clerk down at the pharmacy (Rainn Wilson is stuck with probably the most unspeakable line, in reference to Juno's pregnancy test: "That ain't no etch-a-sketch. This is one doodle that can't be undid, homeskillet").
The most prominent exceptions would be the two mature female characters, Juno's stepmom, Bren (played by Allison Janney) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), the transparently square, middle-class, infertile suburbanite who is desperate to take Juno's prize package off her hands.
At first the movie seems so keen to make an impression it's actually a turn-off, but there are two significant turning points. In the first, Cody and director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) stay with the parents after Juno has confessed she's pregnant. Their reaction - which I won't spoil here - is priceless and all the more so for being so unexpected, and so true. It's at this point that you realize the movie itself is growing up as it goes along.
In the second - again, I won't spoil it - Juno bumps into Vanessa at the mall, and in a simple gesture, we see the teen freak connect with the yuppie mom.
This is a star-making performance from the diminutive young Canadian actress Ellen Page (Hard Candy). She wrestles Cody's most unwieldy wisecracks to the floor, and gets the awkwardness and self-doubt underneath this independent spirit's stubborn insistence on doing things her way. There's a great moment when she realizes her friendship with Vanessa's way cooler husband Mark (Jason Bateman - raising his game here) is leading her uncomfortably out of her depth, and consciously pulls back. She's beginning to pick up on the danger signals and adjusting accordingly.
Among several fine supporting performances the parents Janney and Simmons are standouts - but everyone gets the chance to show an extra-dimension, that's what makes Juno a little bit special.
There is a danger that this sleeper hit has generated so much excitement in the US, it's begging for a backlash over here. Anyone seeing it back to back with There Will Be Blood will have reason to wonder how the Academy could put this flyweight comedy up against PT Anderson's knockout masterpiece. But on its own terms, and forgetting the hype, Juno is a very bright, sussed feminine answer to Superbad et al; Lily Allen to their Babyshambles.
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