Thursday, August 7, 2008

Movie Review: Juno

With her tiny stature and narrow figure, Juno star Ellen Page might seem an unusual romantic fantasy for teenage boys and young men, but she's a potent one nonetheless. She's not the ideal arm-candy trophy girl, like Anne Hathaway, or a plush sex fantasy come to life, like Scarlett Johansson. The girl Page projects is the one a fellow would want around when he puts the hormones and the outside-world façades aside--when he wants to kick back, hang out, and smile. Her almost preternaturally relaxed quality is one of Juno's chief pleasures.

I've seen Page in two movies prior to Juno: Brett Ratner's franchise special-effects action extravaganza X-Men: The Last Stand, and David Slade's indie revenge shocker Hard Candy. Apart from Ian McKellen's droll villainy in the X-Men film, she's the only reason to see either picture. X-Men: The Last Stand represents the worst of summer-movie action filmmaking--it's assaultive and noisy, with dialogue and exposition scenes seemingly designed for people with attention-deficit disorder, and, to borrow Pauline Kael's line about Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film seems edited for the maximum number of screenings per day. But when Page is onscreen, the picture slows down and opens up; her romance-tinged scenes with Shawn Ashmore--including a magical bit of summertime, open-air ice-skating--have the engaging, suggestive understatement the character scenes had in the franchise's vastly superior Bryan Singer-directed installments. In Hard Candy, Page's relaxing, laid-back demeanor and wry, almost deadpan line readings provided a devastating counterpoint to her psychotic character's sadistic actions, and the performance is genuinely terrifying--a brutal study in the dark side of her charm.

Ellen Page's title part in Juno, though, revels in that charm's bright side. This high school comedy gives her the best role she's had to date, and she delivers a terrific performance. In the opening scene, the 16-year-old character is walking around her suburban Minnesota neighborhood, swigging from a jug of fruit drink, all the while displaying the faux bad attitude some women affect to make fun of themselves when they're having their period. Juno, however, isn't having her period; she's several weeks late, and the mock-bitchiness masks her terror over what's happened: a spur-of-the-moment decision to seduce her sheepish pal Paulie (Michael Cera) has left her pregnant. Page's deadpan style lends itself beautifully to irony, and while she nails the character's sarcastic bravado in the film's opening, she also conveys the fear and dread underneath.

Much has been made of Page's terrific comic timing; her delivery of the stream of one-liners provided for her by screenwriter Diablo Cody is indeed superb. But the low-key, at times laconic manner that makes the sarcastic lines so effective also allows Page to put across the character's emotions and attitudes with a dazzling economy. The depth--as well as the tensions--in her relationships with Paulie, her father (J.K. Simmons), her stepmother (Allison Janney), and her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) are quickly apparent. When Juno meets the baby's prospective adoptive parents, Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), one can immediately feel her wariness of Vanessa and her immediate rapport with Mark. And Page maintains Juno's quiet transparency throughout the film. In the film's most emotional scene, when she realizes that Mark and Vanessa aren't the happy couple she hoped them to be, and she flees their home in a panic that the adoption may be derailed, Page may leave one feeling slightly stunned: the discordant emotions are dramatized by broken speech rhythms, uncertain movements, and a brief view of tears, and the contrast of these with her usual cool helps dramatize her emotional quandary more vividly than any yelling or flailing about could hope. Juno's feelings are often only implied by the script, but Page never fails to clearly put them across; she transforms the words on the page into a fully realized three-dimensional person on the screen.

This is not to say Diablo Cody's screenplay is lacking. Besides the cleverness of the dialogue, the story is beautifully constructed, with the characterizations and relationships concisely integrated into the action. The film occasionally engages in time-out exposition to explain a character or situation, but Cody makes a point of writing it flip and funny, and the film never gets bogged down. She ably builds the story to a climax. The dramatic crux of the film comes from the fact that Juno's decision to carry the baby to term has largely alienated her from the life she led before the pregnancy, and she relies more and more on her idealized view of Mark for a sense of security. The story's crisis point occurs when the problems in Mark and Vanessa's marriage boil over, and Juno realizes that they are not who she thought they were. She has to decide what to do with the baby, and Cody skillfully blends audience suspense over the decision with the emotional scenes of Juno's giving birth to the baby. The revelation, when it comes, is extraordinarily artful; one knows in an instant that Juno has intelligently reevaluated the decision and the people involved. This wiseacre teenage girl has grown up; her greatest pleasure in life may be singing and playing guitar with Paulie, but she approachs decisions like a responsible adult.

I wish Jason Reitman's direction did more to mirror the no-muss, no-fuss approach of his star. The film has a lovely sense of pace, but some of the staging ideas are a bit too self-conscious, like the repeated motif of having the high-school track team run across the frame, or showing Juno repeatedly walking against the flow of students in the school halls. And Reitman tends to linger too long over telling details, such as Juno's hamburger phone, Paulie's racecar bed, or the fact that the interiors of Mark and Vanessa's home look like the photographers from Better Homes & Gardens will be arriving any minute.

However, all is forgiven when one sees the beautiful work Reitman gets from the ensemble he's put together. The always terrific J.K. Simmons gives Juno's father a lovely warmth: after Juno has given birth, the father tells her that one day she'll be there again on her own terms, and it's the single most touching moment in the film. The straightforward, no-bs manner Alison Janney gives the stepmother leaves no doubt where Juno's sardonic nature comes from; it might even make more sense if she was the character's mother. Olivia Thirlby is all friendly, supportive energy as Leah, and Michael Cera's Paulie is like a big, floppy stuffed animal--if you understand that girls sometimes love 'em dumb, you can see why Juno likes having him around. Jason Bateman effectively plays Mark as a man who's never really grown up, and while I wish the film had shown more of her character's control-freak side, Garner does a fine job of conveying that, despite her anxious and off-putting qualities, Vanessa is a thoughtful, responsible woman.

And, of course, there's Ellen Page. Her work in Juno is delightful, but her performance is so well-realized that one can't help fear that, like Molly Ringwald and Winona Ryder before her, she'll be so identified with teenage roles that she'll be stuck in a niche, and then discarded as time passes her by. But one can't worry about what we may not get from a performer in the future, one can only enjoy the work we can see in the here and now. Juno is one of the finest comedy films of the decade, and Ellen Page's performance is the icing on the cake.

Reviews of other films directed by Jason Reitman:

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