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The Carletonian

An earnest and playful classic: a review of “Juno” (2007)

“Juno” (dir. Jason Reitman) is successful  at two things: keeping it simple and keeping the zingers flowing. Telling the story of an accidental teenage pregnancy often invites overzealous melodrama. However, our eponymous hero’s bildungsroman takes more notes from Amy Sherman Palladino’s “Gilmore Girls” than anything. The emphasis is less on stakes and more on wit. The film is stuffed to the gills with quirky characters who articulate the world around them in unique ways. The centerpiece is Juno herself (Elliot Page), who packs a deck of cards worth of wordplay and wisecracks to downplay and describe her pregnancy. From lines like “they call me the cautionary whale” to “Look at me, I’m a planet,” Juno’s playful language expertly waters down the gravity of the situation. Even the most tertiary of tertiary characters manage to get cracks in, such as Rainn Wilson’s store clerk remarking to Juno that her “Eggo is preggo” after her third pregnancy test comes up positive (which, to be fair, had what Juno described as a “plus that looks like a division sign”).

Despite the dryness of the writing, it never veers into mean-spiritedness. If anything, the humor is self-effacing, making for a wholesome coming-of-age comedy. Paulie Bleeker, the father of Juno’s child, isn’t an absentee; rather, Michael Cera plays  a dorky runner who enjoys eating Tic-Tacs almost as much as he is madly in love with her. The actor himself is the icing on the cake; you just want to pinch his cheeks. Meanwhile, her parents (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) support her decisions with fierce love and admonishing humor. There are plenty of rumors flying around behind Juno’s back, but we never bear witness to this gossip. There is one sequence in which the pregnant Juno parts a cluster of students like the Red Sea as she gets odd looks going down a hallway, but that’s about it. Juno’s accidental pregnancy is never framed in a tragic light but posed as an unexpected “bump” along the way. It allows the goofiness, awkwardness and melancholy of teenage life to shine through, preventing its quip-heavy writing from coming across as overwritten.

         Ironically, by undercutting the cleverness of its script, the film finds its depth. Juno opts to give the baby up for adoption rather than going through with an abortion, giving the reason that the clinic “smelled like a dentist’s office.” While Juno’s humor helps her deal with her situation, there’s also a carefree abandon to it that signals a teenage immaturity. We don’t see this in Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), the potential adoptive mother of Juno’s child, but we witness it tenfold in her husband, Mark (Jason Bateman). He is essentially Peter Pan, an obstinate teenager inside an adult’s body. Like Juno, he loves rock ‘n’ roll and horror movies, but we also see his reluctance to take his potential parenthood seriously. While Vanessa brings up the concept of “nesting” in preparing the baby’s room, he asks whether she’s planning to rustle up some sticks and spit.

In the beginning, Vanessa introduces herself as someone “born to be a mother,” opposite Juno’s desire to not be one at this moment. The lesson she teaches isn’t about motherhood or aligning with gender roles but about being honest about one’s feelings and embodying vulnerability. Juno finds her off-putting at first because they don’t connect on a verbal level. Instead of cracking jokes, Garner brings an almost inhuman warmth, love and honesty into her dialogue. She communicates her feelings and fears, while Mark shields his insecurities with humor. With her vulnerability comes a strange intuition, whether it’s simply detecting the difference between nearly identical shades of yellow or that she seems to infer that Juno’s child will be a boy just by touching her stomach. The latter may be because of a deleted scene, but it’s here nonetheless. Vanessa knows what she wants while Mark doesn’t, and Juno gets caught in the middle of this saddening miscommunication.

The film teaches us a simple lesson about love and the double-edged sword of playful, humorous language. Jokes can make a loved one laugh and feel better, but they can also be a hiding place. The language of love can be funny, but it must always be honest. “Juno” isn’t a cautionary tale about how teenage pregnancy is a death knell. Instead, it is about learning to be vulnerable as a part of growing up. Mistakes can happen along the way, but life remains long and rich so long as one approaches its contradictions and absurdities with the correct weapons. In any case, the movie is just a positive delight, a source of guaranteed smiles, silly songs and sweetness. It’s like maple syrup shot on digital.

Rating: 4.5/5

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