Ever since her breakout performance in Hard Candy (2005), Ellen Page may have had a few smaller rles in bigger films (X-Men: The Last Stand) or big rles in smaller films (The Tracey Fragments, The Stone Angel, Smart People) – but the last time most of us remember seeing her, she was running off into the woods dressed in a red hoodie in the closing scene of David Slade’s uncompromising (and darkly ambiguous) paedophile revenge thriller. And now, in Juno, there she is again, still dressed in that distinctive hoodie, still talking with an intelligence that belies her years and a navet that confirms them.
This time, however, she is no ghost from the past, no monstrous projection of a guilty conscience, but a real flesh and blood teenager, trying to negotiate her adolescence while in a condition better suited to adults. For, with a similar focus to Knocked Up, Juno is organised around the nine months of an accidental pregnancy, with the development of the foetus running in parallel to that of the mother.
After having sex for the first time with her sweetly reserved friend Paulie Bleeker (the excellent Michael Cera), 16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Page) is up the duff, and in a state of confusion – and it is a state that we are quickly made to share, thanks to the film’s determined refusal to bow to the expectations of clich. Juno wants “to procure a hasty abortion”, but then changes her mind on a whim. Instead, with the help of her straight-talking pal Leah (Olivia Thirlby), she sets out to find the ideal couple to adopt the baby – and she thinks she may have struck the mother lode with middle-class child-seeking thirtysomethings Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman).
Far from hitting the roof when he finds out about her pregnancy, Juno’s handyman dad Mac (J.K. Simmons) offers to accompany her to check out the Lorings – and Juno’s stepmother Bren (Allison Janney) is similarly supportive, showing her wicked side only to the more patronising members of the medical community. And while Juno is the first to acknowledge that she has a lot of growing up to do (“I’m in high school, dude, I’m ill-equipped”), so too does Mark, who is almost twice her age…
As Juno so wisely asserts of pregnancy, “it can often lead to an infant”, and so we have a good idea from the get-go what will be coming out of Juno’s tumescent belly in the end – but the quirky screenplay from first-timer Diablo Cody (who penned the script while working as a phone sex operator and insurance adjuster in Minneapolis) ensures that there are plenty of surprises along the way. Even the sassily stylised dialogue, at first coming over just a tad twee, begins to gel as Juno’s precocious witticisms are revealed to be a cover for her insecurities and limitations, as she finds herself “dealing with things way beyond my maturity level.” Fortunately she is a fast learner, with her heart definitely fixed in the right place.
Jason Reitman’s follow-up to his 2006 debut Thank You For Smoking is a fast and funny flick where coming-of-age meets coming-to-term. It is refreshingly frank about sex and love, pokes fun at the clashes between age and class, and, even more subversively in the American context, celebrates the pregnant possibilities of the non-nuclear family. And while Page proves once again that she is a formidable acting talent with a long future ahead of her, she has solid support from the entire ensemble.
Juno is hardly a world-changer, but as with last year’s Little Miss Sunshine, its undoubted qualities are all in the delivery. So, cigars all round, then.