Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Juno: the indie darling du jour

When all of the critics swoon over a new indie low budget darling of a movie, my first impulse is to pick at it. So let me preface this review by saying that most of you would probably love Juno. The theater was mobbed when I went to see it. Most everyone had a good cry at the end, and walked out blinking, happily full of a message of life-affirming indie hipness. I found Juno extraordinarily witty, but also too self-consciously winsome by half, a film that likes to wear its hipster credibility on its sleeve even as it paradoxically supports marital commitment and responsibility.

A maternity comedy in the same vein as Knocked Up and Saved!, Juno stars Ellen Page as the petite 16 year old Juno MacGuff who likes Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, and the Runaways. We first see her in animated form in the opening credits. As someone sings a quirky alternative song, Juno walks past cartoon houses in her red Converse sneakers. She also drinks SunnyD on her way to the convenience store to take her third maternity test that day. The store’s clerk chides her with remarks like “Your eggo is preggo.” She replies with “Shut your frigging gob, okay?” When she tries to shake the plus off of the plastic pregnancy-testing stick, he says “That ain’t no etch-a-sketch. This is one doodle that can't be undid, homeskillet.” Most everyone in the film has ace comic timing and cliché-free one-liners that makes all of the dialogue a pleasure to listen to. Juno was written by wunderkind Diablo Cody, a pleasantly skewed writer mostly known through her book “Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper” who shares with comics artist Daniel Clowes a talent for making fun of modern America. Juno reminded me much of Clowes’ Ghost World (2001), which concerns another pseudo-punk teenage girl trying to find her identity in a world of adult compromise.

Anyway, one day out of boredom, perhaps, Ellen sleeps with her friend Paulie Bleeker (Superbad’s Michael Cera) on a lounge chair. Paulie spends much of the film eating orange Tic Tacs and running around with his track team the “Dancing Elk Condors” in their red and gold suits. Paulie looks so guileless and youthfully dweeby, Ellen’s father Mac (J. K. Simmons) is genuinely surprised when she blurts out who the father is. As he says, “I didn’t think he had it in him.” Page experiments with going to an abortion clinic, but she runs into one of her Asian high school friends protesting in front of the building. Once inside, she finds that she can’t go through with it. So with the help of her cheerleader friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), she finds a couple desiring a child in the Pennysaver, and decides to have the baby and give it over to them.

When Juno and her dad go to visit Vanessa and Mark Loring in their swank upper-middle class house, the storyline gets more complicated as the couple’s Pottery Barn yuppie lifestyle clashes with the film’s indie-punk aesthetic. Jennifer Garner plays the neurotic Vanessa and Jason Bateman her secretly rebellious husband Mark who writes commercial jingles and yet aspires to be a middle-aged rocker. While Vanessa acts frantic to have a child, Mark impresses Juno with his electric guitars, so they jam for awhile when they should be downstairs signing the adoption papers.

Then, as the film shifts from winter to spring, Juno gets enormously pregnant and makes cracks about how she’s the “cautionary whale” as everyone makes a wide berth for her in the high school hallways. As Juno learns serious lessons about the drawbacks of ironically playing at life and the need for serious emotional commitment, I liked the film less and less. Juno likes to joke about babies. When talking to Vanessa early on the pregnancy, Juno says, “Yea, if I could just have the thing and give it to you now, I totally would. But I'm guessing it looks probably like a sea monkey right now and we should let it get a little cuter.” But ultimately, the film has to get serious, with sensitive earnest talk about values and the need for responsible parenthood. Ellen Page holds her own as a nuanced actress, but after so many heartfelt scenes with indie rockers strumming along on the soundtrack, I felt like I had imbibed too much whimsical sweetness, like eating one orange Tic Tac too many.

2 comments:

Dead Pan said...

While I actually don't find the first 10-15 minutes that great(particularly the scenes with Rainn Wilson, who I do enjoy on the office) I adore the rest of it. I feel that, despite some of it's forced quirk, it is a very genuine film. While a film like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist fails.

FilmDr said...

Shawn,

I responded to Juno much as I responded to WALL-E. The critical hype around both films made me suspicious of their overblown virtues. Juno definitely has excellent performances and a top-notch if also unrelentingly witty script, but I dislike films that try that hard to be hip. It almost automatically makes them less so, just like mass popularity also makes them less so. After awhile, I found the indie soundtrack grating, and movies about pregnancy always end with the same going-into-labor affirmation-of-life climax.