Nick Day 15 February 2008

Make your budget the aesthetic. Such was director Todd Haynes’ advice to filmmakers working on a shoe-string, trying to give their movie a look which, though unable to match the lacquered splendour of a studio production, could top any of them for lean, scrappy realism. ‘Juno’ however, despite its indie cinema branding, rarely makes much effort to emphasise its visuals: the photography’s alternation between soft, autumnal hues and dull greys has a peculiarly self-effacing quality – as if coaxing apathy from the audience.

Perhaps it’s because the film’s strident dialogue has shooed away all other aesthetic considerations. Then again, this is a film where the characters’ speech is the most lavish ornamentation, the dialogue glittering with sass and fanciful phrasing. It’s a pity that the actors are the only other aspect of the production equal to the wordplay’s dazzle.

Even by the savvy standards of her fellow characters, the titular Juno (Ellen Page) knows how to talk. She’s a wisecracking teen with moxie to spare, but there’s an underlying sense that she hasn’t had much life experience to back it up. And then she gets pregnant. Her trip to the local abortion clinic is a disaster: she encounters a protesting classmate (“Did you know your baby already has fingernails!?”), a receptionist who wearily offers her flavoured condoms (“They make my boyfriend’s junk smell like pie”), and a waiting room filled to bursting with squalid humanity. Having nixed abortion, Juno’s attention is directed towards adoptive parents advertising in the local rag, and she quickly finds an ideal couple in the affluent Mark and Vanessa Loring.

They live in the kind of house that seems to be awaiting a photoshoot, and their ad promises the surrogate child will receive ‘love, laughter, learning and teddy bears’. Having broken the news to her father and step-mother – whose instant and unwavering supportiveness almost beggars plausibility – she meets with the gushingly earnest Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and the seemingly worldly Mark (Jason Bateman). With the couple judged worthy of parenthood, an adoption is arranged, but with nine months to go what’s a hipster like Juno to do in the meantime? Talk, a lot.

I still can’t decide if lines like “Honest to blog” make screenwriter Diablo Cody worthy of an Oscar or a candidate for the guillotine. This is American Quirky at its most verbose and for much of the film’s first half the dialogue actually works against its leading lady. Ellen Page does a remarkable job of making her zingers sound as though they come from Juno’s head rather than a screenwriter’s pen, but it’s not until the latter stages of the film that she emerges as more than a pre-natal quip hitter. The most affecting moments are those between her and Paulie, a close friend who becomes a one-night lover and father of her child.

Michael Cera’s understated turn as the callow but decent Paulie is perhaps the best, and least heralded, supporting performance in the film. During their scenes together the rhythm of dialogue looses its punchy dynamism, as Paulie mumbles yearningly and Juno trips over her words.

At one point Juno confronts Paulie about his interest in another girl, and their conversation quickly descends into a hissing match that is both funny and startlingly poignant; Juno grinding out the insults but never quite managing to conceal her disappointment and hurt. It is some of Page’s finest acting, and an exquisite moment of emotional authenticity amid the verbal stylisation.

Despite the thorny subject matter of teenage pregnancy this is a sardonic caper of a film; a screwball rite-of-passage for its heroine which pays only lip service to the ramifications of the bulge under her sweater. The tagline for the film proclaiming it “A story about life and the bumps along the way'” is all too revealing. Juno’s unborn child is treated largely as a comical hindrance; it gets in the way at the school dinner queue, requires elasticated waistbands to be sewn into her jeans and lands her the moniker of “the cautionary whale”.

Her relationship with the Lorings is outlined rather than detailed; Jennifer Garner has the thankless role of a wannabe soccer mom, a character whose maternal instinct is more or less her singular attribute. Jason Bateman has the juicier role of the manchild whose youthful attitude earns him Juno’s admiration, and possibly more, but the scenes between them feel rather hackneyed as they trade pop-culture flirtations and play one another their favourite music.

And when Mark plays a cover version of MOR giants The Carpenters’ ‘Superstar’ by Grunge band Sonic Youth, it is as though for a moment the fabric of the narrative has been unstitched and a hint of self-irony exposed. The film, for all its spiky repartee and teases of controversy, really couldn’t be a more cute and conventional composition.

Nick Day