Sunday, January 27, 2008

JUNO THE ALONE. The Best Picture Oscar nominees have developed a twee-indie slot, filled in 2004 by Sideways (which I considered here); last year by Little Miss Sunshine, which I admired with qualifications; and now by Juno. The hallmarks are high quirk, small scale, and some intellectual flourishes which mark them as upscale entertainments.

Juno goes a little further than its predecessors. For one thing, the twee is laid on with a trowel. The Kimya Dawson soundtrack assures more toothache than heartbreak (though I really hope she goes to the Oscars dressed like a bumblebee or something), and the Wes Andersonian sidebars and psuedo-naive animations indicate that Academy voters are finally warming to New Cool.

Certainly having a pregnant teen who isn't a beaten-down victim and in fact appears in control of her situation is a new one; Sharon Curley had great spunk in The Snapper, but she was grounded in an old-fashioned working-class reality and reacted to it, whereas our current heroine is exceptional in nearly every way and brushes off the social implications of her act as nuisances. She's as much a goddess as her namesake, and such social comedy as Juno provides is based on her and her family's steadfast indifference to other people's expectations. Her frank talk at the Lorings' -- "Maker's Mark, please" (flashes thumb) "Up" -- is funny enough that the other characters barely need to react. Despite some commentary we've heard about the movie, this very successfully removes society as a factor in her journey: her mission to deliver the baby to the appropriate couple is not a social policy decision but pure self-assertion by a precocious 16-year-old who trusts her own instincts completely.

It's to Juno's credit that she finally encounters disappointment in an unexpected way, handles it in a manner consonant with her character, and changes her mind about something important. (Spoiler alert.) When the couple she's picked don't live up to her expectations, she takes (private) time to absorb the loss, and gives the baby to the now-single woman she knows will care for it. If one were to try and put a message on it, it would look more like a plea for single motherhood in a world of inadequate males, and very much beside the point.

The mind-changing is dramatically interesting. (You still reading? I'm still spoiling.) Juno's most important relationship, on the story's terms, is with Bleeker, her best friend and father of her child. If her pregnancy isn't a significant problem for her in any other way -- her friends and parents are accepting, other people don't count, and the destiny her great intelligence and confidence indicate for her seems totally unaffected -- it's the sticking point between her and him. She shields Bleeker from the consequences as an act of love, but this has the effect of pushing him away, and -- classic turnaround! -- dim as he is in many way, Bleeker understands it better than she does. In fact, she doesn't have a clue, even when he tells her, and only the breakup of the Lorings brings her to the conclusion that Bleeker is important to her, not as the father but as the boy she was meant to be with.

If this sounds sentimental, that's because it is. Juno's pregnancy is a McGuffin that complicates her unconscious search for romantic love. Once this sinks in, the movie suddenly feels very slight. Though the tart, teenspeak dialogue and unusual premise make Juno feel hip and wised-up, Juno's gynecological coming-of-age basically leads to a life-lesson straight out of an after-school special. Through most of Juno -- and especially during the development of the troublesome relationship of Juno and Mark Loring -- we expect that the flip tone and emotional distancing of the characters are covering for something deeper. But as it turns out, not so much: everyone's a child, and not much capable of growth. Juno's final discussion with her father (which, significantly, she ends by deceiving him) and her profession of love to Bleeker return us right back to the breezy place where we started, only now Juno and Bleeker are for-reals gf and bf, playing emo bullshit on acoustic guitars. It's kind of a relief, but not a revelation.

Revelation's a lot to ask, though, so let us be content with the excellencies Juno offers. The dialogue really is snappy, and the actors sell it beautifully. It probably says something that the fine supporting cast is mostly from prestige TV shows: they have a great feel for lines that might have choked actors who aren't used to thinking fast. (I'm especially fond of Michael Cera and hope he gets the film career fate has perversely denied that other talented skinny-boy Topher Grace.) Ellen Page so dominates as Juno that I really suspect the movie wouldn't work at all without her. I haven't seen the other nominees but I wouldn't be shocked if she won the Oscar because her performance is so clearly indispensable. She's got the genius-child bull-headedness, and the charm to make us like it.

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