The eponymous character in Juno, a pregnant 16-year-old played with impressive verbal dexterity and heart by Ellen Page, speaks in quips and geeky references, and surrounds herself with ironic accessories like a hamburger phone and a plastic pipe. She seems on the surface the picture of carelessness, and her pregnancy serves as the ultimate symbol of her inability to take life seriously. About 15 minutes into the film, in the funny, touching scene where she finally spills the news to her parents (wonderfully played by J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney), that first impression turns out to be entirely false. Yes, she has a snarky, above-it-all attitude, but irony is her protective shield, masking the fear, vulnerability, and compassion lurking just under the surface. She’ll make a great mother someday, just not now.
Strikingly written by newcomer Diablo Cody, Juno will get a lot of attention for its colorful dialogue, which is at times too ostentatious for its own good, but the film’s sincerity is what ultimately carries it across. Set in the indie town of Quirksville, U.S.A.—Cody and director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking) go a little overboard in this regard—the film opens with Page burning through pregnancy tests, trying to shake off a “plus” sign as if, the store clerk says, she were handling an Etch-A-Sketch. She initially considers an abortion, but instead decides to give the baby up for adoption, with the consent of its perpetually thunderstruck father Michael Cera. Page finds a willing couple in yuppies Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, but as she perhaps unwisely insinuates herself into their lives, she discovers some fissures in their marriage.
Garner and Bateman’s characters are drawn a bit too broadly—she’s the henpecking, Type A, overeager supermom-to-be; he’s the whipped sellout who loves Sonic Youth and Herschell Gordon Lewis, and still dreams of being a rock star—but the actors do a fine job wriggling out of caricature. Garner, in particular, has found the right role to capitalize on her high-strung, hyper-driven screen persona; her excitement over being a mother would be overbearing if it weren’t also so heartbreakingly sincere. That’s Juno’s appeal in a nutshell: It comes off as calculatedly irreverent at times, and its Wes Anderson-isms are too precious by half, but its sweetness is genuine and next-to-impossible to resist.