Thursday, Jan. 10, 2008

Hey Juno!

By David Luhrssen
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Sixteen year old Juno is smarter than most of the people around her. She knows it and in her prickly sarcasm, her eye-rolling "You're such a dope" tone, she lets everyone know it, too. In director Jason Reitman's Juno, the namesake protagonist (Ellen Page) is hyper-articulate, calls her electric guitar Franklin ("after Roosevelt") and delivers the snappiest set of one-liners since Eve Arden in the screwball comedies of Hollywood's golden age.

In a moment of curiosity pushed by emotions repressed and denied, Juno comes on to her benevolent if ineffectual classmate, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). Pregnancy was not the intended outcome and after three trips to the toilet with test strips, the pink plus sign keeps coming up. Only it's no plus for a 16-year old who never gave parenting a thought. Like a high school version of Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth, Juno cuts across the abortion debate by painting partisans on both sides as fools. Juno passes the protesting classmate in the clinic's parking lot, maintaining a lonesome and pathetic vigil, but once inside, finds the bored, self-important girl at the reception desk even more irksome. Juno shocks everyone - classmates, parents and the father of her child - by deciding to have the baby and give it to a worthy couple. She begins hunting for couples in the classified ads, next to terriers and exotic birds.

But it's a mistake to class Juno as a movie about abortion. It's not pro-life or pro-choice so much as anti-stupid, opposed to all those in American society who refuse to grow up and assume adult responsibility. In his resigned, shrugging way, her blue-collar dad (J.K. Simmons) is comfortable in his grown-up skin. Everyone else is worthy of Juno's sneering put-downs, including her hippie biological mom who ran off to an Indian reservation, her hopelessly mainstream step mom Brenda ("Bren-duh" she calls her), her eager-to-be-stereotyped classmates and, especially, the yuppie couple who propose to adopt her baby.

Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), living in a pretentious McMansion in Glacial Valley subdivision, are dead-on caricatures of familiar tendencies in contemporary life. Although she is the primary financial prop in their expensively shallow lifestyle, she is obsessed with becoming a mother at all costs, even if it means buying a child on the sly. Juno rolls her eyes at their offer of a fee and an "open adoption" with annual updates on the child's progress. "Can't we just keep this old school?" she asks. "You know, like the basket left at the front door, like Moses in the reeds?"

Smarmy Mark harbors erotic interest in the biological mother of his future adopted child. He was a rock musician in the '90s and unsuccessfully argues music with Juno. As a fan of Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, she snickers at his weenie alt rock tastes and career of composing jingles with music software. "Quite the sell out," she snaps. "What would the Melvins think?" Despite living with Vanessa's monogrammed hand towels and Pottery Barn furniture, he still wants to rock. Problem one: he's too old. Problem two: he never knew how to rock in the first place.

Given the emotionally thin oldsters around her, incapable of sustaining relationships, understanding love or finding meaning in life, Juno has every reason for contempt. She is searching for ideals that have become rare in the postmodern setting. With her nuanced, smart and poised performance, Page deserves Oscar credit. With their scathing intelligence, Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody have composed the best coming of age film since Ghost World.

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