A waggish modernization of the After School Special, replete with teen pregnancy and the fallout of a failed marriage, Juno is self-consciously cool to the point of being glib, so beguiled by its own dialogue that it neglects to develop genuine relationships between its pubescent protagonists. Channelling adolescent angst through snide superficiality may be an effective method for depicting immaturity, but pomp is a poor substitute for depth and Juno’s youthful ensemble never complements the sincerity of the narrative, favoring ingenuity over emotional authenticity.
Acting as screenwriter Diablo Cody’s mouthpiece, Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) breathes life into a stock scenario through her sardonic sense of humor, playfully conveying contempt for peer and parent alike through acerbic barb or arcane pop-culture allusion. The curtness and levity of her speech, littered with a constant stream of antiquated jargon, may function as a defense mechanism, obscuring the sorrow of her mother’s absence and the unexamined disconnect between herself and her preschool-aged sister.
We open on Juno with child, the product of a platonic sexual voyage shared with bandmate Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), a track star who has yet to determine if he’s part of the in-crowd or a misfit of Juno’s caliber. Bleeker is certain of one thing, however, languishing over his erotic conquest as he lies beneath his bedsheets, clutching her cotton panties in his fist like some hormonal devotion ritual. Nocturnal pining aside, the dynamics of Bleeker and Juno’s relationship are ill-defined, leaving the audience to conjure the building blocks of a friendship without any prologue to the pregnancy. The pair doesn’t even engage in a passionate discourse until well into Juno’s third trimester, scuffling over the jilted Bleeker’s parent-approved prom date and Juno’s fear of commitment. One saving grace to a juvenile conflict is Bleeker’s callow reaction to Juno’s distance, an honest depiction of youthful selfishness that ignores Juno’s predicament, despite the fact that she bears the brunt of their intimacy in her distended belly.
Months prior to this coy exchange with Bleeker, Juno had intended to play her pregnancy close to the vest, venturing alone in search of a teen-friendly clinic to “procure a hasty abortion.” Hiding behind a cavalier pose, Juno sought termination with poise and resolve, only to be affronted by the ineffectual ministrations of the staff and the chattering of loitering patients in a grubby waiting room. As she made her swift escape, the impassioned words of a lone protester permeated her thoughts, the queer notion of a fetus with fingernails transforming a night of misadventure into a genuine human being. Avoiding pro-life proselytizing without insulting religious devotion is a fine line to walk, but Cody manages to compose a delicate scenelet, motivating her naive counterpart toward adoption instead of the extremes of zealotry or abortion.
Realizing how “ill-equipped” she is to perform the tasks of a caregiver, Juno seeks out prospective parents in the Pennysaver, nominating a wide-eyed couple that has an excess of financial wealth, but little in the way of communication skills. The mother-to-be, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), quietly hides the sadness of failed pregnancies beneath a mask of civility, quivering at the mere mention of infertility. Her husband, Mark (Jason Bateman), feigns interest in the adoption, but his ambitions are trapped in a spare-bedroom recording studio that houses the ghosts of his teenage dreams. As an also-ran in the 1990’s grunge-rock revolution, Mark’s band once opened for The Melvins, an experience he uses to draw himself closer to Juno, finding her snotty behavior and thrift-store fashion sense as signs of a more suitable mate, despite her immaturity. Common ground shared through splatter cinema and proto-punk inspires a clandestine bond, forcing Vanessa further down the depression spiral and driving a wedge between the expectant couple, imparting a much needed dose of reality that parallels the ignorance of youth and uncertainty of adulthood. The most rewarding aspect of this mounting conflict is Jennifer Garner’s soul-baring performance, a study in repressed misery that blossoms into hope as the kicks in Juno’s stomach reverberate onto Vanessa’s fingertips. The wellspring of emotion expressed solely through pointed glance and extended palm all but wash away the cloying modishness and pretense of Mark and Juno’s “intellectual” connection, constructing a tender passage that belongs in a far more intuitive film.
Desperately straining for cool points, Diablo Cody favors cultural cache over verisimilitude, prostituting the work of singular artists like H.G. Lewis and Sonic Youth in hopes that some of their well-deserved hipness will rub off. Soundtrack selections also function as signification of taste instead of visual accompaniment, repurposing the sneakily sarcastic odes of Belle and Sebastian into montage music for characters that don’t match their wit or eloquence. Unlike Stuart Murdoch’s effortless poetics, Diablo Cody’s dialogue feels like dialogue, ringing hollow when forced into real-world scenarios. Slang terminology can sing when peppered into sentences rich with real, dictionary-defined words, but language constructed solely of patois is just stoner psycho-babble.
The linguistic games do, however, bind the adolescent characters to childhood, wisely providing contrast between the adult responsibilities that accompany Juno’s maiden pregnancy and her jejune mindset. A late-blooming maturity also befits the lead character, allowing her to embrace a fondness for Bleeker without succumbing to his will or losing herself in the emotional merger. The pair even shares a heartfelt moment of reconciliation that avoids melodrama, revealing the emphasis that Bleeker places on appearing cool, a facade that goes unnoticed by his betrothed. Juno works best when it takes Bleeker’s advice and champions vulnerability, faltering only when it buys into affectation and wallows in its own verbosity.
Juno (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2007)
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Diablo Cody
Photographed by Eric Steelberg