Labour Day: Behind the scenes on Juno

Emma Dibdin 7 February 2008

In recent years, it’s become a near-certainty that at some point an offbeat, low-budget and blackly comic film featuring no major stars will arrive out of the blue and swiftly overcome its humble roots, winning box office dollars and critical adoration alike. Between 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite, 2005’s Sideways and 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, the “little indie that could” is rapidly becoming a genre unto itself, and the newest entry into this hall of fame is also the most extreme runaway success to date.

Juno is the story of a teenage girl who gets pregnant and, after briefly considering abortion, decides to give the baby up for adoption. The film follows her journey through pregnancy as she struggles with life, relationships, an identity crisis and the consequences of her decision. Nothing terribly original so far – coming of age, teen pregnancy, adolescent angst set to fittingly indie soundtrack – but Juno does for this potentially clichéd premise what Little Miss Sunshine did for “the family roadtrip movie”, offering a fresh perspective, witty, layered writing and characters that feel more like real human beings than a mere sum of their various quirks.

Behind the innovative screenplay is stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody, whose fresh, disarmingly honest voice and wholly unique wit permeates every character on screen, none more so than Juno herself. “I was sitting in my house thinking to myself, what’s a story I haven’t seen”, says Cody. “So much of the stuff I was watching was totally derivative”.

Thus the character of Juno was born, a strong, vibrant, whippet-smart teenage girl who calls a spade a spade and always has a quotable one-liner at the ready. It was this, more than anything, that caught star Ellen Page’s interest. “I think I was just so excited that a teenage girl had been written this way,” she enthuses. “She’s honest but original, completely devoid of stereotype, which is the most fantastic thing for an actress.”

When asked how much of herself she saw in Juno, Page reflects, “It’s hard to answer that, in the sense that if you’re playing a character who is honest, and whole, and well-written, then you’re always going to be able to relate in some way.” The acting process, she says, is just about “finding that, and then figuring out how you want to portray that person. I was in awe of her, certainly, I wanted to be Juno so badly.”

Page’s nuanced performance in particular has garnered a deluge of critical attention, capped off recently with an Oscar nomination. While she describes the praise as “ridiculously humbling”, director Jason Reitman is quick to agree. “A lot of actors are good mimics, or do a lot of research, or they’re naturally very charming”, he explains. “What’s different about Ellen is that she knows what Juno would do, say or feel at any given moment, and she can turn it on and off like a light switch. It’s incredible to watch.” Co-star Allison Janney concurs, describing page as “fearless…like a young Audrey Hepburn. There is something beautifully feminine about her and yet she’s playing this incredibly tough, cool character.”

But no matter how brilliant the writing or the performances, nobody involved could have predicted Juno would enjoy the kind of runaway success it has. To date, it has grossed an estimated $110 million, garnered a host of awards and nominations including four Oscar nods, and been almost universally praised by critics. “It is crazy, you never expect this,” Page says. “We made an independent film, and we definitely all believed in it and thought it was something special, but we had no idea this would happen. We were all very much like ‘Oh, I hope this gets into the Toronto Film Festival’, and that was huge in itself.”

When asked whether this new wave of “indie success stories” could open doors for more thoughtful filmmaking in lieu of mindless blockbusters, she is cautiously optimistic. “It’d be nice, you know, the fact that a film came out with a unique, intelligent, multi-dimensional young woman, and did so well, it might allow people to have more faith in movies that decide to do something different.”

It’s not only in the character of Juno herself that this multi-dimensionality shows itself, and indeed it was one of Cody’s main goals to avoid the kind of lazy stereotyping that typifies Hollywood screenplays. “I think women often get pigeonholed as these extremely emotional, melancholy creatures, who are here to bring feeling to the world”, Cody reflects, “and that’s bullshit. Women are clever, women are funny, women are sharp, and I wanted to show that these girls were human and not the stereotypical teenage girls that we often see in the media, just raging, hormonal, catty, image-obsessed bitches.”

It isn’t just the teenage girls who are given this treatment – every character in the film, however limited their screen time, feels fully formed, as Page points out; “It was an ensemble piece where no characters were tools, they all had their own unique evolution.” This is perhaps most true of the affluent couple Juno selects to adopt her baby who, aside from the heroine herself, are perhaps the film’s most evolved characters. In particular, the relationship between Juno and Jason Bateman’s Mark is one of the most important; he fascinates her as an adult with whom she can identify, she fascinates him as a window back into the youth he can’t quite let go of. Perhaps inevitably, with Mark’s marriage rocky and the two spend increasing amounts of time alone together, things take on a slightly darker tone.

“It’s definitely ambiguous,” says Page, “and I think Jason had the harder job, because I play a character who’s young and actually quite naïve. She’s fascinated by him, she likes this portal into adulthood and doesn’t really understand what could be going along with that, whereas Jason had to play a character that was walking that fine line.” But she’s quick to point out that this is by no means a Hard Candy retread, “I don’t think Mark is a bad character at all, he’s just at a point in his life where he’s not happy and some transition needs to take place.”

Transition, as it happens, is a key theme here. The film is shot in seasons – autumn, winter, spring – each one with a different feel and colour palette, to mirror the three trimesters of the pregnancy. Of course with an “issue” like this at its core it would have been all too easy for the film to get political, to use Juno’s decision as a jumping-off point for preachy moralisation. “It’s not trying to be political at all,” Janney maintains. “You just have a story about something that happens to a girl in her life and what she decides to do.”

Indeed, there is no hint of a pro-life agenda here; like the Judd Apatow hit ‘Knocked Up’ and last year’s bittersweet ‘Waitress’, both films that also deal with an unplanned pregnancy being taken to full term, Juno is too clever for that. This isn’t to suggest that the issue of teen pregnancy is taken lightly; the full impact on Juno is realised gradually and subtly throughout the film, as the layers of her character are peeled away and it becomes clear she isn’t quite as invulnerable as her quippy cynicism suggests. In one striking moment our tiny, heavily pregnant heroine makes her defiant way to class, surrounded on all sides by the stares and silent judgement of her peers. She is, as she puts it, “dealing with things way beyond her maturity level”.

But in the end, this is not a film about any one thing; teenage pregnancy is only the tip of the iceberg. “You can look at it as a film that celebrates life and celebrates childbirth,” Cody says, “or you can look at it as a film about a liberated young girl who makes a choice to continue being liberated. It raises a lot of questions about love, freedom, marriage and where we’re ultimately supposed to wind up in life.” Crucially, it doesn’t pompously claim to hold any real answers to the questions it raises.

There’s a moment after Juno confesses to her parents, where her father comments, “I didn’t think you were that kind of girl”. After a pause, she replies honestly, “I don’t really know what kind of girl I am.” It’s this brand of fresh, truthful writing that makes Juno one of the most deservedly hyped films of the new year.

Emma Dibdin