Directed by Jason Reitman. Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, J. K. Simmons, Allison Janney, Olivia Thirlby, Valerie Tian. Fox Searchlight.
Decent Films Ratings
|?Teens & Up*|
Content advisory: A brief sexual encounter (no explicit nudity); much abrasively crass language and sexual references; references to divorce and to remarriage.
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By Steven D. Greydanus
“Just out dealing with things way beyond my maturity level” is 16-year-old Juno’s mature if bitter reply to her father’s query about where she’s been.
It’s a funny thing about maturity levels. Maturity and immaturity can be combined in unexpected ways, like a hulking teenager with a baby face. At a certain age, youthful hubris, naivete and sheer foolishness can blithely coexist with keen insight, practical realism and steely common sense. Equally, juvenile narcissism and unreadiness for the demands of adulthood can survive well into middle age and beyond. A childlike spirit can be winsome or wearisome at any age, and some seem born readier for real life than others, alas, ever become.
With her blue slushies and layered grunge couture, Juno (Ellen Page) is definitely a kid… and she’s mature enough to know it. She also thinks of herself as knowing and worldly-wise, always ready with a cutting quip or witty aside — yet she’s naive enough to be unconvinced of her condition after two pregnancy tests and a single encounter with Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), who is not exactly her boyfriend, and so we are back to the immaturity thing.
“It started with a chair,” Juno tells us in the opening voiceover. Well, no, it started a year earlier in Spanish class, when Juno first decided, reading a note from Bleeker, that someday she would have sex with him. That must have been some note.
Two pregnancy tests later, there she is in the convenience store staring at the third positive test, shaking it as if hoping for a different result. “That ain’t no Etch-a-Sketch — that’s one doodle that can’t be undid, homeskillet,” observes the smugly opprobrious clerk in a zinger typical of first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody’s immoderately quotable sensibility.
Without any real decision, Juno makes what is probably the only “choice” readily available to a girl with her socialization and background: She schedules an appointment to ”procure a hasty abortion.” (The same course of action is taken for granted by a friend who, in a show of support, offers to make the call for Juno, having done the same for another classmate.)
But a funny thing happens on the way to the clinic, and at this point the film, which had been merely abrasively crude and excessively witty, becomes intriguing. Standing in the parking lot is a lone abortion protester — an ultra-shy, soft-spoken girl named Su‑Chin (Valerie Tian) whom, in a disarming twist, Juno knows from school.
“All babies want to get borned!” Su‑Chin timidly chants as Juno approaches. The girls make brief, awkward small talk about school — but then, as Juno turns to head into the clinic, Su‑Chin ventures to call after her with some salient pro-life facts: ”Your baby probably has a beating heart… it can feel pain… and it has fingernails!”
It’s that last detail that hooks Juno’s imagination: “Really? Fingernails?” She briefly considers this, then heads into the clinic. But Juno (who has earlier mentioned her proneness to involuntary intrusive thoughts in connection with other unseen bodily members) now finds that she is unable to stop thinking about fingernails. Combined with the off-putting seediness of the clinic, it’s too much for her, and soon she’s running out the door — much to the approval of Su‑Chin, not to mention (as Su‑Chin calls after her) God.
Although the shy, awkward Su‑Chin is far from the most compelling face for the pro-life movement, the film reinforces rather than undermines her basic stance, and her pleas regarding the fetus’s humanity play a key role in persuading Juno to not to go through with the abortion. In this cinematic year of the unborn child, Juno is perhaps the most striking and significant in its pro-life implications.
Her consciousness expanded, Juno is now able to contemplate the possibility of giving up her baby for adoption, and she sets out to find the perfect couple to raise her baby. She finds her candidates of choice in affluent, childless Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner).
At this point there are certain scenes and developments we can see coming. Juno has to tell her father and stepmother (J. K. Simmons and Alison Janney) about the pregnancy. We’ll see her in school, at the mall and about town with her slowly swelling belly. Chances are she’ll break up with Bleeker and make up with him by the end (though they may or may not be dating).
Yet here again the film takes another unexpected step forward, and, where it had been clever and insightful, now reveals hidden layers of complexity and depth.
A bit prim and subtly needy, Vanessa is a little taken aback by Juno’s casual flippancy, and it seems possible that Vanessa’s stuffiness could somehow queer the deal she wants so desperately. But Mark is more relaxed and personable, and if there are hints that he may not entirely share his wife’s eagerness for a child, he seems at least supportive, and his easy interaction with Juno smooths over any awkwardness between her and Vanessa.
But then, gradually, subtly, a very different picture begins to reveal itself. One individual’s peccadilloes come into sharper focus, slowly betraying significant character issues, while another character’s foibles recede in importance. And Juno, who at this point isn’t speaking to Bleeker, is blindsided by painful truths about maturity and commitment, and the gaping chasm between the way things ought to be and the way they are.
Juno’s blind spot, ironically, is a side effect of her own fundamentally sensible outlook, which in her inexperience and naivete she makes the mistake of taking for granted. Even sage words of caution from a sensible grownup fall on deaf ears; it’s a lesson the young can only learn by experience.
Ellen Page’s performance is the key to Juno’s journey, and she unerringly nuances her character’s blithe self-assuredness with just the right notes of uncertainty and innocence. Bateman and Garner do equally textured work as the very different spouses, while Simmons and especially Janney make Juno’s father and stepmother more interesting than they might have been.
Critic Peter Chattaway rightly notes that Juno empathizes with all of its characters, which is not to say that its sympathies are equally with all of them, and certainly not that it approves of or excuses all their choices. But while imperfect decisions by imperfect people lead to imperfect outcomes, the film doesn’t lose sight of the way things should be.
“I need to know that it’s possible for two people to stay happy together forever,” Juno says plaintively to her father in a key exchange. It’s a difficult moment, because Juno’s father is divorced and remarried. His answer isn’t all that profound, but Juno gets the message, and is almost surprised to learn that wiser isn’t always sadder. Here is a film of rare wisdom, one that knows that following your bliss is often another name for selfishness and immaturity, and the secret to lasting happiness is often a matter of taking what you have and deciding to make it work.