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Pregnant pause

Juno is in the family way
By CHRIS BRAIOTTA  |  December 12, 2007
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Juno

Juno | Directed by Jason Reitman | Written by Diablo Cody | With Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Alison Janney, J.K. Simmons, and Olivia Thirlby | Fox Searchlight | 92 minutes
The problem with clichés isn’t just that they’re boring. The problem is how easily ignored they are, and how they can cause a story to collapse into a parade of unremarkable events. Juno plays a game of chicken when it comes to clichés, daring itself to see how closely it can skirt the trite and crummy while still giving you something you can care about.

Jason Reitman’s film makes the most of a few great ideas. The best of these surrounds its bulbous subject (Ellen Page). Sixteen-year-old Juno is a little too smart to be popular, a little too caustic to care. As the film opens, she’s busy seducing her boyfriend, Paulie Bleeker (played by Michael Cera with his unvarying brand of frightened charm). Reitman and writer Diablo Cody ditch the typical approaches to teenage boning, all that nostalgic leering and overkneaded import, and reach for something a little finer.

Juno won’t accept the idea that she’s about to have a bit of a glow about her until she’s baptized an armload of home pregnancy tests in a convenience-store bathroom. The way the film handles this development — not flippantly, but without any hand wringing or punitive hoo-hah — betrays yet more stubborn life. Juno heads off to the abortion clinic with an exasperated shrug. Once she gets there, though, she can’t quite go through with it. Is it the lone protester, an earnest classmate with damp oratory? Is it the clinic’s grimy air of an office trailer on a construction site, with its bored receptionist and cheap wood paneling? Or does Juno’s sense of herself just not kick in until she’s forced to act? Whatever it is, this scene gets across more about her inner life than anything dialogue could have conveyed.

Everything that’s good about Juno makes use of this wily kind of storytelling — like Juno’s doomed relationship with her child-to-be’s adoptive parents, a commercial composer clinging to aging scraps of indie-rock cool (Jason Bateman) and his brittle, infertile wife (Jennifer Garner). When it’s real and unforced — which is often — the film succeeds. Too bad there are so many mundane surrenders like the quipful dialogue that chokes the first half, aping every teen movie of the past twenty-five years as it converts adolescents into ripped-denim Oscar Wildes. That passes away, but the same can’t be said for Reitman’s compulsion to end every scene with some cutie-pie indie-pop song about holding hands and bicycles and ice cream. That kind of cloying quirk is this decade’s chief affectation, the way faux noir grit was for the ’90s.

But because the story’s so evasively powerful, and because it’s so nice to see a cinematic girl who’s allowed to be flawed and smart and willful, and because Page bristles with prickly warmth, Juno conquers its self-imposed banalities. Its greatest coup is making Juno’s condition not the end of the story but rather the catalyst whereby she learns how adults — those puffy things lumbering on autopilot in the background — are in fact bursting with petty life.

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