Saturday, February 02, 2008

Film Review: Juno

During the first ten minutes of Juno, my mind entered into a particular train of thought, one along the lines of ''My eyes, they've been descaled! The emperor, I can see his junk! The critics, they're all talking bollocks!'' and I started to suspect that, for some strange, incomprehensible reason, the entire world had been lying to me and saying that Juno was a great movie. I don't know what it was, but the opening ten minutes had me checking my watch and inwardly groaning that I'd fallen for the hype and, for once, I wouldn't be able to stomach it and focus on the positives; the dialogue felt stilted, everyone in the film talked like characters who knew they were in a film, the opening sequence seemed to shriek ''Please make me the next Napoleon Dynamite!'' and, in general, it all seemed like it was going to be a rough ride.

I'm not sure at which point my train of thought changed to ''You fucking idiot, Ed, this is brilliant!'' but it most definitely did.

The plot revolves around 16-year old Juno (Ellen Page) who, after becoming pregnant by her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), is faced with some tough choices. After deciding not to have an abortion, not for moral reasons but because it's just not something she would do, she decides to give her unborn child up for adoption, settling on a well-to-do couple, played brilliantly by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, and she seems to have set things up perfectly for everyone. Now, there's just the little matter of actually having the baby.

Juno is not the film you think it's going to be. Based on the trailers and the ''buzz'' around it, you'd think it would be a fairly hip, wry and witty comedy, which it most definitely is, but there's an awful lot more to it than that and I for one was really surprised by it. It's a film that has a real freshness to it, even though it utilises a lot of character types that people will be very familiar with. For example, Garner's character is a woman who can't have children and becomes desperate to have a child so that she can fulfill her maternal impulses, and Bateman's character is a middle-age manchild who still harbours dreams of being a rock star even as he has to make a living composing jingles for commercials. These aren't new characters by any means, but director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody imbue them with a wit and a verve to it that really raises it above similar fare.

The undoubted star of the film is Ellen Page, who manages to portray Juno as both a surprisingly mature, aloof teenage girl interested more in Iggy and The Stooges and The Mouldy Peaches (many of whose songs appear on the wonderful soundtrack) than with love, motherhood and all the strange things that are happening to her. She's very funny and carries the film along well, but if she was only doing a funny, mouthy teen act then the film would never really reach the heights that it does; whilst Juno seems to take everything in her stride, Page also illustrates how vulnerable she is, particular in one emotionally-charged scene about two-thirds of the way through the film, in which she gives a small, fleeting glimpse of what's going on underneath and, in doing so, forces the audience to re-evaluate her as a character. It's a great performance with considerable depth and it's no surprise, to me at least, that Page has picked up an Oscar nomination for it.

This counterpoint between comedy and real emotion runs throughout the film, particular with regards to Garner's character, Vanessa. Though she doesn't get as much screentime as some of the other characters, she imbues every second with a restrained desperation that only hints at the pain and insecurity that her character feels. It's hard not to feel for her when one of Juno's off-hand, acerbic comments accidentally hits home and she tries to hide it, or when the cracks in her marriage start to show as Juno gets to know her more. Vanessa is the beating heart of the film and her scenes with Bateman are wonderfully written, mixing beautifully observed comedy with a palpable melancholy and the way in which big laughs can be followed by chilly silences, not only in their scenes but throughout the film as a whole, is quite spellbinding.

The rest of the cast are also very good; J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are great as Juno's father and step-mother who, after the initial shock, stand by their child and just get down to the business of caring for her; Michael Cera does his usual lost puppy-dog thing and is very sweet with it, and the host of odd supporting characters manage to flesh out the odd, idiosyncratic world of the film: from arguing lab partners to the school running team, from orange tic-tacs to jocks with secret crushes, there's a lot of details that are little more than incidental, almost superflous, but which create a real sense of small-town life.

Once you get past the almost painfully self-conscious dialogue, Juno reveals itself to be something quite magical. It's a film that's by turns laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly sad; the characters, whilst spouting words which, if we're totally honest, are much too clever for them, are flawed and sympathetic and are almost impossible not to love; the script, barring the occasionally grating voiceover, is well-crafted and constantly surprises with its wordplay and unwillingness to unfold just as you would expect it to, and the direction is just off-kilter enough to keep things lively but which doesn't impinge upon the story. Believe the hype, this is something marvellous.