I'm hoping JUNO helps make Ellen Page the star that HARD CANDY should have made her. She was completely unknown to me when I went to see that harrowing piece, and her performance was Oscar caliber. I've been eagerly awaiting more work from her, but other than a tiny part in X-MEN: LAST STAND, I've had a pretty long wait.
But she totally steals JUNO...which is saying a lot, because almost everyone is pretty terrific in this highly entertaining film. But Ellen Page is some sort of unique energy source. She seems to do so little, but the tiniest facial tic or change in tone conveys so much. She's clearly a super-intelligent actress and her characters are also intelligent (probably almost to the point of stretching credulity...but who cares, it's so much fun), and they are funny and in JUNO, sensitive.
Juno is a sixteen year old who has just discovered she's pregnant, after one encounter with her longtime friend Bleeker (they are mostly just friends...not really girlfriend/boyfriend). June at first considers abortion as her only option, but she quickly decides she'd rather carry the child and pass it on to a loving but needy couple for adoption. She does this knowing full well that she'll be an object of much discussion at school, AND she'll have to tell her father (JK Simmons) and her step-mother (Allison Janney). And she'll have to tell the baby's father (Michael Cera from SUPERBAD and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT).
She finds her immediate family to be shocked but supportive, and her dad comes with her to meet the couple Juno has selected (from the "Penny Saver" no less!). These childless yuppies are played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, and at first we think Garner is a bit of a control freak, and Bateman is the "cool" one...but this movie plays with our expectations of this couple right from the start. I won't say much more, because much of the richness of the film comes in the changes Juno sparks in this couple.
Juno is a whip-smart almost loner, who we find early on, is probably secretly pining for the love of goofy Bleeker. And Bleeker certainly loves his old friend...yet these two have never faced these feelings...because they are both so confounded by them. Juno is accustomed to having her act very much under control, and I believe she has a hard time admitting she has feelings that make her vulnerable to another person. And Bleeker (played sublimely by Michael Cera...who is now officially in danger of being typecast for the rest of his life) is just too shy, goofy and flummoxed to believe his feelings would ever be returned.
There isn't a lot of plot to the film. It follows Juno through her voyage of discovery, at the child growing inside her, at her own feelings towards the boy who may become the man in her life and at what she discovers about the family she wants to give her child to. What makes JUNO so much fun is the crackling dialogue (from current hot screenwriter Diablo Cody) and the equally snappy performances.
(I appreciated too that Juno made the choice not to have an abortion. Not only would there have been no film if she had...but it was refreshing to see a major film character make the choice she did. Not because she was against abortion, but because she was able to make a reasoned decision that was not only great for her child, but great for another couple and quite enriching for her. It also serves as a reminder that there are other choices besides abortion or deciding to raise a child yourself. I don't feel the film was trying to make a statement...except to say "whatever you decide, think it through a little bit.")
The dialogue is the kind that no one would ever speak in real life, yet it hews close enough to realistic that it becomes its own style of "hyper-realism." Ellen Page has the aura of someone who might actually speak in this very cynical yet open and intelligent manner, and thus she pulls it off. Therefore, everyone else (none of whom are quite so snappy as Juno) seems positively normal by comparison. Thus, the dialogue works!
The performances are very good as well. As I said, Cera is wonderful at the type of part he plays...I hope he gets to stretch soon as an actor...but for now, seeing him work is a delight. Janney is very good as the stepmother, who both loves and is exasperated by Juno. Garner is touching in her smallish but important role, and Bateman brings interesting shadings to what could have been a one-dimensional role. He underplays, and this is in keeping with the style of the film. It's no wonder that his character and Juno's hit it off so well.
But to me, other than Ellen Page, the MVP of the film is the always fantastic JK Simmons. Can someone please sometime give this actor an award!! From the over-the-top newspaper editor in the SPIDERMAN films, to the hilarious thief with irritable bowel syndrome in THE LADY KILLERS, to competent Dr. Skoda in "Law and Order" to the chilling white supremacist in "Oz"...this guy may be the best character actor around. He plays Juno's dad so well, and their scenes together have a true warmth that spreads to the whole film. He's a blue-collar guy...no doubt perplexed by Juno's immense vocabulary and her way of speaking...yet we can also see in his manner that he's a big inspiration to how Juno turned out the way she did. It's a well-written part, and he knocks it out of the park.
The movie is not perfect. Again, the wonderful screenplay is a bit mannered. It struck me that way a Woody Allen or Neil Simon script might strike an audience...these characters are too witty to be believed. So while I thoroughly enjoyed the script and while it was well-executed...it still did not 100% elude the "hey, no one in real life would think to say that" syndrome from time to time. It would say it was more like 95% of the time.
Jason Reitman (who also directed the excellent THANK YOU FOR SMOKING) keeps the film moving nicely...but he's not a super-inventive director. He finds good scripts and a good cast (90% of the battle) but there's nothing inspiring about what he brings to the film as a crafter of beautiful imagery or masterful framing. He lets his actors do great work, and that's most important. Some day, I hope he tries his hand at something that doesn't really on Aaron Eckhart's or Ellen Page's masterful delivery.
But this is certainly a film high on my list for 2007. I truly love Ellen Page, and I predict some more great things for her. Her performance alone makes the film worth seeing...but thank goodness there are so many other great things as well.