God bless Allison Janney.
In the beginning, Juno is almost too much to take. After swigging a jug of Sunny D, our titular heroine (Ellen Page) walks to her neighborhood drug store to buy another pregnancy test. There, the clerk, played by The Office's Rainn Wilson, engages with the teen girl in a bout of over-stuffed, over-written, hyper-quirky banter.
"Your eggo is prego," he taunts her. "Silencio, old man," she shoots back with a flourish. "This is one doodle that can't be undid, homeskillet," he responds. Say what?
And that's the way it goes. Soon we're introduced to the kid who helped put Juno in such a bad spot, Paulie Bleeker, played completely to type by Michael Cera (Arrested Development, Superbad) as an awkward, sunken-chest kid.
So, for 20 minutes or so, Juno is in danger of being your worst (or at least my worst) quirky-cute indie-flick nightmare — a hipper, more verbally aggressive, less inept gender-flip on Napoleon Dynamite.
And then Allison Janney saves the day. After an aborted trip to an abortion clinic, Juno returns home to tell her father (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Janney) that she's pregnant. After a few minutes of comic banter as stalling mechanism, Juno drops the bomb and Janney gasps, "Oh God." It isn't played as comedy at all. It's a small moment that conveys the gravity of the situation, and her delivery of the line stopped my breath for a moment.
It's a flash of humanity that grabs hold of the movie and grounds it in the real world. And from that point on, Juno performs a delicate, effective balancing act between celebrating its heroine's precocious cool and being honest about her situation.
Page, a splendid young actress who negotiated the demanding indie provocation Hard Candy last year, never lets her character slip into caricature. Her eyes go dark and deep at the right moments — when she registers her father's disappointment or Paulie fails to properly register hers. And the script and direction follow suit by refusing to enshrine the character as the perfect hipster goddess.
This is most apparent when Juno first meets the potential adoptive parents she contacts out of a newspaper ad: thirtysomething suburbanites Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner). Vanessa is desperate to be a mother but can't have kids of her own, a delicate situation that Juno, in her motormouth display of cool nonchalance, doesn't pick up on. When Vanessa makes a comment about the magic of pregnancy, Juno dismisses her by exclaiming that Vanessa's lucky it isn't her. Director Jason Reitman lets you see just the briefest flash of hurt in Vanessa's eyes, which is enough to establish Juno as a girl who, however quick-witted, doesn't know everything. She's still a teenager, thoughtless and callow without meaning to be. When she deadpans to her father that she's been out dealing with things way beyond her maturity level, it's the truth.
Juno is a movie that finds its way, much like a teenager coming of age, managing to retain its fresh, zingy humor — "I'm a legend," a very pregnant Juno explains of her treatment at school. "They call me 'the cautionary whale'" — even as the tone shifts into something deeper. It's a movie that starts out wobbly and ends up being the best "teen" comedy since Rushmore.