One of my fellow critics, whom I won’t name because this makes me want to strangle him, called Juno “Knocked Up lite.” Buzz on the Net wonders whether Juno is “a chick flick,” with all the accompanying baggage of inferiority and silly, frilly irrelevance that loaded phrase carries. And all because, I can only guess, stories about unexpected pregnancies that actually acknowledge that a female person is an actual participant in the event — and not merely an inconvenient bystander to further complicate a man’s suddenly finding himself pronounced “daddy” — couldn’t be less pertinent to half the human race.
I’d scream with rage and frustration, except Juno is so damn good, so damn relevant — Knocked Up fans be damned — that I am becalmed. Like Waitress, the similarly themed, ahem, “chick flick” from earlier this year, this is a heightened, brightened, skip-a-dee-doo-dah glide through one of life’s big goalposts: not so much growing up but growing out. And I don’t mean bellywise, either. Like Waitress, this is snarly-funny and whipsmart-witty enough that if you don’t want to take any deeper wisdom from it, you don’t have to, and you can still have a wonderfully good time at the movies with it just relishing the off-plumb family drollery and the kind of please-kill-me teenage angst that reminds you why you never, ever want to be a kid again (and yet still have fond memories of the era). But if you care to look for juicy bits of meaty substance concerning the power of genuine friendship, the promise and hope that accompanies new babies, and the unexpected expansion of your own self when you suddenly see other people, well, that’s all here to be had.
It’s a familiar tale, though one rarely told with such insight or such casual acceptance: Juno MacGuff, high schooler (Ellen Page, who between this and last year’s startling Hard Candy is headed for stardom), finds herself — oops! — preggers after some sexual experimentation with her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (sweet-faced Michael Cera, also seen in this summer’s Superbad). Her dad and stepmom (the ever indispensable J.K. Simmons [Rendition, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee] and Allison Janney [Hairspray, Over the Hedge]) are stunned for only a brief moment, then immediately supportive. Right from the get-go, and on through the whole film, there’s a refreshingly nonpanicky approach to the whole situation: Yes, having a baby, especially at a young age, can dramatically impact the rest of young woman’s life, and yes, it’s nothing to be taken too lightly, but on the other hand: it’s not the end of the world. It’s a baby, that’s all — something humanity has been dealing with since forever. And also: sex is a normal thing, and nothing to be ashamed of. Sure, the kids at school give Juno and her ever-expanding midsection the sly eye, and sure, her parents briefly wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better if their daughter’s “big news” were that she’d been expelled from school or was doing drugs, but the entirety of the rest of the film — this is a wise first screenplay from the deliciously named Diablo Cody — puts paid to such thoughts. How could a perfectly normal thing like a pregnancy be a totally awful thing?
Of course, the so-called “pro life” crowd is already jumping on Juno’s choice to have the baby and give it up for adoption as some sort of vindication of their forced-pregnancy creed — as if this would be precisely the same kind of joyful yet down-to-earth sensible flick were Juno denied her choice. The fact that it’s her decision — and perhaps even a contrary, less than obvious one — to seek out a couple to adopt her baby is what breathes the sweet, funny, awkward real life into the film: growing up isn’t just about making the best of the mess you find yourself in but figuring out what’s best when that’s not always clear. Jennifer Garner (The Kingdom, Catch and Release) and Jason Bateman (Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, Smokin’ Aces), as the well-off professional couple working-class Juno finds herself temporarily hitched to — they want in on every moment of her pregnancy in advance of taking her baby as their own — are just one more confused and confusing encounter on Juno’s crooked path to herself. They’re not as perfect as they seem, but they, too, are beautiful and authentic in their imperfection.
Director Jason Reitman gave us last year’s cunning Thank You for Smoking, but here he grows as a filmmaker by melding the snarky with the shrewd. He doesn’t knock getting knocked up, nor does he sentimentally celebrate it, either. He merely recognizes it, in a simple, gloriously human way, as part of this crazy old thing called life, which rarely accedes to our wishes to unfold the way we want it to.