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Juno (2007): ****

Directed by Jason Reitman

I saw this movie almost a week ago, but I'm only now reviewing it because I was at a loss as to how to accurately describe just how phenomenally good Juno really is. I still am. But I'm willing to give it a try.

For starters, Juno is smart. And I mean that both the character is smart and the movie named after her. The screenplay (by a man whose first name is apparently "Diablo") is uber-sharp, almost supernaturally witty, and relentlessly funny. Not since The Simpsons Movie have I sat in a crowded theater and have had the movie be regularly drowned out by racous laughter.

But unlike The Simpsons Movie, which was at its heart just a series of teriffically funny bits strung one after another, there is something more going on beneath the surface of Juno. If it were merely a rollicking comedy, why then would I repeatedly find myself with honest, well-deserved and hard-won tears in the corners of my eyes?

Much of the credit belong with the leading lady, Ellen Page (who I last saw as Kitty Pryde in X3). I know first-hand how difficult it is to be THAT funny, to speak hip dialogue and make it sound believable. But I cannot imagine the skill that went into this performance. Juno keeps a strong, fierce shield up for most of the movie (she plays off her pregnancy as if it were some sort of inconvenience and revels in her outsider status), but Ellen Page somehow lets us see, without ever showing us, all of the depths that are beneath that cocky bravado. We know how Juno really feels about everything, even though she never once says it out loud nor lets up on her wisecracking exterior. I honestly have no idea how it was done, but it is easily one of the best performances in years.

But Juno is of course not the only smartly-written character in the movie. Basically all of the characters are extremely well-written, even those who are not especially well-spoken. And they all have their own voices.

So the basic plot: Juno gets preggers after having sex with her best (guy) friend Pauly. She decides to have sex with him basically because she's bored (and he's the kind of sweet, meek guy who would never have raised the issue). She doesn't want to have the baby, but she doesn't want to have an abortion either (she tries, but the abortion place is hilariously off-putting, and besides, her fetus has fingernails), so she and her best (gal) friend go through the ads in the Penny Saver for private adoptions. They meet the wealthy couple, played by Jennifer Garner as a woman who so desperately wants to be a mother but is unable to conceive, and Justin Bateman as a man approaching middle age whose young dreams never really panned out. A contract is signed. All that's left is the next seven months of pregnancy.

The wealthy couple is one of the most fascinating elements of the movie. Their relationship is a sad case that I see all too often in real life. She marries him because of what she thought he could be, not because of what he actually is. It seems, in fact, that she is completely uninterested in who he actually is. She isn't interested in rock'n'roll and Italian horror movies, and thinks his collection of rock T-shirts is stupid. He willfully allows her to relegate his real self and all his rock star aesthetics into a tiny little room because it makes him feel good to make her happy. His wife owns the rest of the house, and there isn't any overlap or comprimise. Instead of having the time of his life being in a rock band, now he writes jingles for commercials, which "pays for the kitchen" but leaves him somehow unsatisfied. But eventually he comes to resent her for it, even though it is only partially her fault. His unwillingness to stand up for himself and tell the truth about his unhapiness only fuels her to shove away even more of who he really is. She stifles him, and he lets her do it. So it's no wonder that he sees in Juno (a free-spirited, shoot-from-the-hip, punk-loving teenager) some of his lost youth, and it gets him thinking about whether or not he really wants the life he has...

Juno is honest, insightful, and is full of surprises that in hindsight seem inevitable. It moves easily through its little, self-contained world that feels somewhat like a mix of Ghost World, Napeolon Dynamite, and Rushmore, while still feeling like its own movie. Nothing seems forced, nothing seems faked. Kimya Dawson's songs (one half of the Mouldy Peaches) with their simple, almost innocently childlike lyrics ring true and sweet. And by the end of the movie we have come to absolutely cherish every last foible in these characters. We love them for exactly who they are.

There's a scene around the two-thirds mark where Juno is complaining to Pauly about how awful she looks with her gigantic pregnant belly. And even though his heart is obviously racing and his hands must be soaked with sweat, Pauly tells Juno that he thinks she is beautiful.

So do we.

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