Please Note: This review was originally written for MovieRob.com’s June Genre Grandeur which covered teenage romance movies. Please head over to MovieRob.com to read other reviews from the genre.
Here’s a list of movies I’ve seen recently: Avengers: Age of Ultron (a popcorn flick about superheroes who create artificial intelligence bent on destroying humanity and breaking up twins), Ex Machina (a cerebral film about a computer prodigy who creates artificial intelligence with potentially violent intentions), Exodus: Gods and Kings (about two men raised as brothers who end up on opposite sides of a war between slaves and their oppressors. Bonus points for plagues and locusts), Jupiter Ascending (set in a future ruled by a murderous family which sells youth serum made by harvesting planets), and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (starring Megan Fox). On top of all this, I’ve been binging on Game of Thrones and Mad Men, neither of which are good choices for family fun night. TV and movies have been pretty intense for me lately. Between AI’s run amok, Channing-wolf, and Megan Fox’s “acting”, I needed some cheering up on the entertainment front. Thankfully Movie Rob’s Genre Grandeur offered a great excuse to get back to movie happiness.
Juno’s release came at a different time in movies. This was before Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe collection of films (35 comic book films have been released since Juno). Before The Dark Knight re-convinced Hollywood that “darker” means “mature” and “crazy profitable.” Since then we’ve been on a spiraling course with films across all genres tinged by the push for dark realism. Even Superman, one of the more optimistic characters in fiction, looks to star in a movie seemingly centered on whether or not a mech-suited Batman can make him bleed.
To be fair, you can find a dark streak in film no matter where you look. Back in 2007, when Juno was released, the Best Picture Oscar went to the nihilistic Coen brothers film No Country For Old Men. Transformers hit theaters that same year, exposing the world to the crime that is Megan Fox’s acting. American Gangster, There Will Be Blood, I Am Legend, Zodiac, Eastern Promises, and Spider-Man 3 (featuring an Emo Peter Parker) came out in the same year. But a host of solid comedies shared the screen. Superbad, Knocked Up, Ratatouille and Juno earned almost as many laughs as Javier Bardem’s hair earned shivers.
Juno may be the most surprising hit in a stacked year. It was written by first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody after she published her memoir Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper. Film producer Mason Novick encouraged Cody to infuse her unique voice into the screenplay which would become Juno. (It’s not all happy here. Novick and Cody would collaborate again on Jennifer’s Body which stars, you guessed it, Megan Fox. Nothing like winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay then writing a Megan Fox flick). Jason Reitman signed on to direct the film before his first feature film, Thank You For Smoking, made its debut. The role of the titular main character went to Canadian born actress Ellen Page who turned heads two years earlier for her role in Hard Candy. To recap, we have a Canadian film with a first-time screenwriter, a director without a released feature film, and a 20 year old actress whose only major credit was in a movie about torture and child abuse. What Reitman, Diablo, Page and the rest of the crew created was a film festival sensation that charmed the world and the awards circuit.
The movie starts with a chair. Juno’s narration kicks in with a Sunny D fueled reminiscence of the night she became pregnant. Right away we get several doses of Juno’s humor as she describes the night, stares at the chair, and argues with a dog. In a way, it’s nice that the movie starts out with Juno’s realization that she is pregnant followed by flashbacks of the night. Usually we get a rushed introduction to a handful of characters then have to watch the often unrelated events that lead up to whatever kicks off the movie’s plot. Like spending 25 minutes with a bunch of high schoolers getting ready for prom in a movie that is really only about prom. Instead, Cody starts us off with Juno chugging Sunny D so she can take three pregnancy tests, not being convinced after she deemed a second test “defective.” Soon we meet Paulie, the father in question and one of Juno’s best friends. Paulie is played by Michael Cera who gives the character a constant deer-in-headlights look which plays well off of Juno’s quips. When Juno tells him that she’s pregnant his shy glee slowly twists into nervous dread. After an uncomfortable pause he asks “What should we do…about…” She stares up at him and hesitates for a moment before replying with characteristic flippancy: “You know I was just…I was thinking I’d just nip it in the bud, before it gets worse. Because, they were talking about in health class how pregnancy…it can often lead to an infant.” Paulie, equally equipped with health class wisdom adds “typically, yeah…that’s what usually happens when our moms and teachers get pregnant.” He encourages her to do what she thinks is best. His deferral hits Juno, setting her up even more for the isolation she would feel later in the movie. Neither of them are suited to deal with their situation even if Juno chews on a pipe better suited for a grandfather throughout the scene.
What we usually remember about Juno are those oversized pipes, the Sunny D, and hamburger phones. But the movie nails these emotional scenes. A large part of this success is in casting, as each actor perfectly fits their roles. The film’s pacing sets up these character developments with subtlety and patience surprising for a 90 minute film. This patience comes through best in the relationship between Juno and Mark Loring, played by Jason Bateman. We first meet Mark and his wife Vanessa after Juno finds the couple in the Pennysaver and agrees to have them adopt her baby upon delivery. Vanessa’s nervous enthusiasm is hard to miss but Mark seems harder to pin down. Mark and Juno meet several more times until his final confession is revealed, throwing into motion the final act of the movie. His arc takes time to develop making it’s final destination surprising, believable, and sadly relatable.
The rest of the characters each go through similar incremental changes. Juno’s development embodies that of the film itself. From the beginning she shields herself with a shroud of shrewd humor, peppering us with one-liners to ease the mood and keep her head above water as she deals “with things way beyond [her] maturity level.” Her pregnancy is only one of things she struggles with in the movie. She suddenly finds herself isolated from Paulie, a disappointment to her parents, and a “cautionary whale” at school. As she drifts away from Paulie she finds herself spending more and more time with Mark who shares an interest in gory horror flicks and indie music. At first her time with Mark helps soothe the loneliness but eventually their meetings throw her into deeper despair. Soon she slumps into a chair across from her father and wonders if “two people can ever stay together for good.” This scene is among the film’s best, ranking up there with Juno telling her parents that she is pregnant. That earlier scene ends with Juno realizing and admitting “I don’t really know what kind of girl I am.” Now near the end of the film, Juno’s finds herself sitting across from her father again and questions humanity. This later scene ends on a more hopeful note. Mac tells his daughter: “Look, in my opinion, the best thing you can do is find a person who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you, the right person is still going to think the sun shines out your ass. That’s the kind of person that’s worth sticking with.” With that advice, Juno goes back on the offensive and sets up the film’s finale.
What pulls these scenes together, and with them the movie, is Reitman’s lingering camera. It locks on to what we need to see and holds still to let the actor’s work stay in frame. We see their faces dance with realizations and contort as they struggle to say something hurtful to a loved one. Juno chokes on her words when she tells her parents that she’s pregnant. Paulie’s face shifts through five or six maneuvers when he learns that same news. The film’s ending is one of the best examples of this visual patience. Juno rides with her guitar slung over her shoulder on her way to meet Paulie. Her narration reminds us that her decisions were based in her new outlook, not in teenage anxiety. She finds Paulie with guitar in hand and the two sit across from each other for a final duet. As they play, the camera slowly rolls away, ignoring any rush to cut or fade to black. No dialogue is exchanged yet the ending couldn’t be clearer.
It’s been about seven and a half years since Juno took its $7 million budget and turned it for a $144 million box office, an Academy Award, and near universal praise. Now the movie floats as a cheerful buoy in a more serious sea. Most of the 35 comic book films released since Juno have adopted an ominous tone and ponder the consequences of godlike powers. Ellen Page herself stars in one of those films and sends Hugh Jackman back in time to halt worldwide destruction in X-Men: Days of Future Past. We’re in the middle of a YA post-apocalyptic movie trend with teenagers fighting back against tyranny, mazes, and different personalities (or whatever Divergent is about). The dark fantasy trend appears to be past it’s prime but still going strong with Cinderella’s recent release. Yet at the same time, we are seeing examples of films parodying these trends. Guardians of the Galaxy poked fun at the overly serious nature of comic book films. Kingsman: The Secret Service similarly subverts the tropes of action and espionage films. And a litany of sad yet hopeful films have followed in the footsteps of Juno and its predecessor Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Movies like Little Miss Sunshine, Safety Not Guaranteed and (500) Days of Summer have kept the legacy of pseudo-indie films alive. And we need that now more than ever with talks of sequels for Megan Fox’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and another round of Jupiter Ascending.