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Movie Review

Hip and hysterical, 'Juno' delivers

Email|Print| Text size + By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / December 14, 2007

That smart, hip, human comedy you've been waiting for all year? The one with dialogue like a sugar rush and performances like grace notes? It's called "Juno" and it just arrived in theaters. Go forth and multiplex.

The buzz is that the movie, about a remarkably assured pregnant teenager, is this year's dark-ish outsider farce along the lines of "Little Miss Sunshine." And in fact it's about as indie as that 2006 hit, which is to say not very: Director Jason Reitman is a scion of Hollywood (his dad is "Ghostbusters" director Ivan Reitman), and the cast includes such struggling unknowns as Jennifer Garner ("Alias"), Allison Janney ("The West Wing"), Michael Cera ("Superbad"), and Jason Bateman.

Ah, but a first-timer named Diablo Cody wrote the pungent, deceptively sardonic script and the young actress Ellen Page arrives in this movie like a slacker Audrey Hepburn on the half-shell. The few of us who saw Page in 2005's suspense freakout "Hard Candy" knew she was capable of great things. "Ju no" doesn't just confirm that promise, it's this close to a great thing itself.

It's also the latest example of this year's peculiar mini-genre, the coming-to-term pregnancy comedy. Like "Knocked Up" and "Waitress," "Juno" eschews the abortion center for the growth chart - the heroine's, not the baby's.

Juno MacGuff (Page), the suburban 16-year-old for whom the movie's named, is a concentrated movie version of a type that exists in life: The smart-mouthed, hyper-literate rockergrrl who weaves ironic pop references into her daily speech. She seems fazed by nothing, yet Cody and Reitman know that as weirdly mature as the kid seems, she's still a kid, one who uses a bedroom hamburger phone to call the clinic. Page lets us see it, too, whenever Juno thinks no one's looking. The character's more active, sexually and intellectually, than the grown-ups give her credit for, but emotionally she's a work in progress. The movie's about how she comes to realize that and build on it.

First, though, it's about watching Juno cut a dry, perplexed swath through life. The baby's father is Paulie Bleeker (Cera), a geeky bandmate for whom she carries an inarticulate torch, and the movie shows enough of the fateful incident for us to understand it's the product of determined after-school curiosity rather than passion. (That's another thing the adults have conveniently forgotten.)

Juno decides to have the baby and give it to the nice childless couple whose advertisement she finds in the Pennysaver, next to the exotic bird ads. They are Mark and Vanessa Loring (Bateman and Garner), living in yuppie splendor in a nearby McMansion sub-development, and just when both the girl and we have pegged the wife as an overwound power-tripper and the husband as a totally cool dude, the ground shifts. The film's also about how name-checking the right achingly hip rock bands is not in itself a qualification for parenthood, a point nicely undermined by the film's own achingly hip soundtrack.

Cody's dialogue shoots from the hip with delightful invented IM-speak. "Honest to blog?" gasps Juno's best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) upon hearing the baby news, and that's when the movie had me, two minutes in. By the third trimester, Juno is acknowledging her iconic status in the school hallways: "They call me the Cautionary Whale."

The parents give as good as they get. Juno's father, an air-conditioning specialist played with droll warmth by J.K. Simmons (Jonah Jameson in the "Spider-man" movies), and her stepmother, a nail technician given breadth, depth, and length by the marvelous Janney, take in the girl's situation with tight lips, then move forward. Because they love Juno and respect her intelligence, her stupidity in matters of contraception isn't a disaster but a disappointment, and that may be worse. "I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when," her father says, to which Juno can only respond, "I don't know what kind of girl I am."

That's one of the few times the movie's arch surface tension ripples with panic. If "Juno" has a fault, it's that the one-liners have so much topspin that the cleverness can turn glib. Reitman proved in "Thank You for Smoking" that he could make intentionally overwritten dialogue fly, but he can't keep "Juno" from the shadow of its own preciousness.

Besides, the actual experience of being a pregnant teenage girl in America is - I'm just guessing here - probably not like this. Parents aren't this sanguine, physical discomfort isn't this minimal. Where's the fear, the doubt, the isolation? Juno is a great, empowering character because she takes everything in stride before being humbled (a little), but she also makes having a baby look easy, and that's the movie's charm and its dead end.

Ultimately, the birth that matters may be the lead actress' career. A pixie rather than a glamourpuss, Page holds the screen with a natural quickness. The briefest hesitation, the slightest narrowing of the eye, and you know Juno has just stubbed her toe on a sadness she doesn't want to reckon with.

Page lets the character keep tripping until she has to look down; in a way it's as insightful a portrait of a kid stumbling toward adulthood as Dustin Hoffman's in "The Graduate." (It's also a good deal wiser than Cody's script.) The better part of "Juno" is watching its heroine grow up before our eyes. The best part is we'll now get to watch Ellen Page do the same.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@ globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

Juno

Directed by: Jason Reitman

Written by: Diablo Cody

Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons

At: Boston Common, Boston, Harvard Square, Cambridge, Coolidge Corner, Brookline

Running time: 96 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (mature thematic material, sexual content, language)

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