By Stuart McLaren (Norwich, UK)
This is a beautiful little film, and the only reason I say “little” is that the initial budget was, I believe, around $6.5 million – miniscule by comparison to an average Hollywood budget these days. Juno’s entire budget would probably equate to a couple of special effects in the latest Star Wars prequel, trilogy, quintet or whatever number we have got up to now. The film went on to gross around $230 million and received almost unanimous approval from critics – this one included. So, what we have here is that rare species of a quality film that is adored by cinemagoers and critics alike, and if (or hopefully when) you watch it, it is easy to see why. From the opening scenes, where a teenage girl (Juno/Ellen Page) is walking through the parks and streets of her hometown, in the very early morning light, drinking from an enormous bottle of Sunny D – not sure we get them that big on this side of The Pond – you are intrigued and already trying to think ahead, as to what is going on and why?
The early scenes are enhanced by slow camera movements and panning shots that gradually reveal the details of the town waking-up, as the only character we have seen so far, seems to be revisiting locations that are part of her childhood and ascent towards adulthood. Is she about to leave them behind and taking a last lingering look? This is small-town North America in the continental sense, as the film was shot in Canada. The opening scenes are beautifully shot and allow the viewer to slowly enter the context of the film and story. Moreover, they are virtually silent, apart from a few natural sounds of birdsong, later the odd traffic noise etc. Even the first important conversation, when it finally arrives, is terse to the point of abruptness. Massive credit has to go to the Director, Jason Reitman and the writer Diablo Cody (which is just about the coolest name I have ever heard) for this slow pace introduction, which allows the viewer to use their imagination and thus become totally intrigued and even slightly apprehensive as to what is coming next.
This just goes to show that good drama does not have to be all guns blazing, Sturm und Drang stuff. The pace of the film does start to vary in due course, but it never feels rushed and, therefore, the viewer is gradually taken along for the ride, as more details of the background story and present lives of the characters are revealed. At this point I would normally indicate a brief plot outline, but in this case, I would rather not reveal too much because, in my humble opinion, viewers are better coming to the film with an open-mind and not pre-supposing where the story is going, or stereotyping the characters involved. Instead let me say a word or two about the acting. The first word would be: Outstanding! The second word would be: Excellent! And other adjectives, of a similar nature would easily follow. Ellen Page, in her big-screen breakthrough role – although there was an earlier film and TV career – is unbelievably brilliant in this film.
Her acting is both natural and immersive, in terms of drawing the audience in, and setting the tone for the film. I would guess she was 18 or 19 when the film was made, but her confident performance and the way she carries the film and drives the narrative, is worthy of the very best and established method actors; although there is no hint here of any acting style, other than sensationally good. Which is not to say that Ellen is not ably (in fact very ably) supported by the other members of the cast, all of whom give very believable and understated performances. The overriding factor here is the story itself. So, again, it is to the credit of both the production team and the cast that the narrative always takes centre-stage. We all know these types of people; what has defined them; their place in society; their hopes and dreams and trials of life; and in some cases, the fact that they are barely managing to keep their heads above water, until the next crisis comes along.
There is not a weak performance in the whole cast. While it would take too long to mention every actor involved (you can look-up the full cast list for yourselves; that is what Wiki is for…come on, put some effort in!) some performances do deserve particular mention. Ellen of course; then there is, in no particular order: – Michael Cera as Juno’s school friend – a nerdy but, surprisingly, athletic type with an unhealthy addiction to Tic-Tacs. A subtle and brilliantly observed portrayal. J.K. Simmons as Juno’s father – who brings a certain world-weariness to his role, combined with incredible patience and obvious love for his daughter, notwithstanding his lumbering her with a forename from Greek Mythology Allison Janney as Juno’s stepmother – yet again the production team shows the courage of their convictions, in not adhering to established and overused character types, allowing for another subtle and emotionally moving performance from a well-cast actor. When was the last time you saw a modern film, or read a modern story, where the stepmother and stepdaughter like each other, and display genuine affection and love for each other, while also being extremely mutually supportive? No wicked stepmother tropes here!
Jennifer Garner & Jason Bateman – the professional/middle class couple in the film. Great performances by both, especially Garner’s display of believable, but not over-the-top, emotions and Bateman’s descent from likeable rogue into, somewhat sleazy, mid-life crisis. Olivia Thirlby as Juno’s best friend – hard not to believe they are not also best buddies in real life. The private conversations between the two are spot-on; from the expletives (don’t worry, there aren’t many); to the made-up names and abbreviations they employ. A completely natural relationship. But, as mentioned, all of the cast give outstanding performances and bring something to the overall feel of the film. The film is also enhanced by a great soundtrack (everything from Lou Reed to Kimya Dawson – I particularly liked the track about a party where somebody “calls the cops”) that never intrudes on the story or, seems out of place. This could be a genuine playlist for these young people. However, this would not be a proper review if I did not bring some element of criticism to the table.
The problem is the way the film was publicised, and this has to do with how I became aware of Juno. Believe it or not, the film was bought for me, as birthday present, by and ex-girlfriend and long-term partner that I still, occasionally met up with. Nout wrong with that I hear you say, all very laudable and mature to maintain a friendly relationship with an ex-partner…and I wouldn’t disagree with you. Except, as she handed me the wrapped DVD, she said, “I think you will really like this.” Here I must own up to a deep-rooted character flaw of my own; hopefully one that is at least vaguely familiar to some of you, as well. Whenever somebody says to me that they “know” I will like something, or “you must read this book, you would really enjoy it”, my first over-defensive thought is “how do you know what I like”, or something stronger such as “where the (expletive deleted) do you get-off having the audacity to suggest you know what I like”? Doesn’t matter if they are girlfriends, relatives, pub-mates or colleagues…I have already taken a disliking to whatever it is they are recommending, for totally dubious and illogical reasons. Furthermore, that feeling will subsequently pervade my assessment of the book, film, album concerned.
Be brutally honest now, some of you must do the same? In this case, I unwrapped the DVD to see a cover that gave the impression of the worst kind of teenage comedy film; the sort that grown adults would normally avoid like the third coming of a plague pandemic. Unfortunately, the DVD cover gives this impression, which is so far removed from the content of the film (which is not to say that there aren’t comic moments in Juno, as there are lump-in-the-throat emotional moments, dramatic moments and even the odd sneaky you’ll have to guess until the reveal comes moments) that it does the film a great disservice. But, again, I can’t reveal the nature of the DVD cover, without revealing the plot, so you will just have to take my word for this one.
Or, alternatively, I have to accept that I am a deeply flawed individual and nobody else would react in that way…I suppose that is possible, unlikely, but possible. :O) My ex obviously saw the look of disgust on my face and immediately added “don’t judge it by the cover”. Disappointing as the cover design may be, the good news is that because of that Juno may well end up in your local store’s DVD “bargain-bin”, in which case, do yourself a favour and fish it out, before somebody else grabs it. Anyway, when I got around to watching the film at some god-forsaken part of an insomnia-driven early morning, needless to say, I was incredibly impressed and simply had to ring my ex and happily admit she was 100% right. I really did like it, no, loved it. We then spent the next 10-15 minutes discussing the merits of the film, the performances and directorial nuances. A lovely conversational moment in a relationship with an ex that, inevitably and eventually (no matter how well intentioned) falls by the wayside, as people move on and find new partners etc.
But back to the film and in summary, this is an excellent, well-crafted and narrative/acting driven film. It thoroughly deserves all the plaudits, awards and commercial success it has garnered. Juno proves that a good, simple, story, well told, will always win-out over unbelievable action-packed films. Although, I hear some people like those too? I can’t praise Juno highly enough. Buy it, rent it, borrow it (steal it if you must – only joking) whether on DVD, Blue-Ray, 4K or whatever the next generation “Reality Plus+” format is, because, believe me, you will want to watch it a second and third time. Treat yourself to a great movie. I think you would really like it. Oops!