Juno: No False Notes

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Doanne Gregory / Fox Searchlight

Ellen Page and Olivia Thirlby in Juno

Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is a not entirely unfamiliar paradox: one of those teenagers who knows less about the world than she thinks she does, but more about it than the adult world credits her with understanding. You're never quite sure which Juno you're trying to reason with, the innocent idealist or the shrewdly appraising demi-adult, especially since she offers all opinions in the same tone of voice — brisk, brusque, funny and very often dismissive of our pieties.

When we meet her, Juno is, as people used to say, "in trouble." By which they mean, not to put too fine a point on it, knocked up. This is not the result of a mad passion for Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). She seems to like him all right, but mostly, we gather, she undertook sex more or less in the spirit of experiment. And because it was just time for her to get that little matter out of the way.

Antenna aquiver for false notes, she checks in at the abortion clinic and doesn't like its casually clinical attitude. This kid can hear false notes pitched too high for most human ears to discern. So she checks out the alternative press and finds an ad placed by a couple seeking adoption. The Lorings (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) are rich, welcoming and ostensibly eager for the fulfillment their biology has denied them. OK, she's a little uptight, and underneath his charm there's something elusive about him. But still, given the limited alternatives available to Juno they qualify as godsends.

He turns out to be more of a plot point than a character. His wealth derives from composing commercial jingles, but his heart belongs to his former ambitions to be guitarist in a rock band. But the chaste attraction that springs up between him and Juno, and his defection from his marriage, which briefly jeopardizes the adoption, turn out to be rather beside the movie's real point, which is to make us admire Juno's unconquerable spirit.

Uh-oh — heartwarming, we mutter to ourselves. But there's something better than that about this kid and Ellen Page's performance in the role. There's something unself-consciously brave about the way she pushes her burgeoning belly through the school cafeteria, something very nice about the way her father (J.K. Simmons) and step-mother (Allison Janney) support her without losing their tartness (or their reality) in the process, something authentically sweet about the way her relationship with Paulie keeps believably developing. The screenwriter, Diablo Cody, knows the limits of this story and, better still, the limits of our patience for its sentimental possibilities, and Jason Reitman, the director, is also a cool operator. He's much more a wry observer than an over-eager manipulator of our emotions. One example: almost every time Juno is on the street, a team of uniformed runners goes jogging silently past. They symbolize, I suppose, the fact that there are other people in the world, lost in their own preoccupations, benignly indifferent to the issues absorbing Juno, absorbing us. It is a smart reminder that the story any fiction relates is arbitrarily chosen and dependent for its effect on the ability of its tellers to enlist our interest — no special pleading, no emotional cheap shots permitted.

In this effort Cody and Reitman are particularly blessed by Ellen Page's performance. She has a way of making her preternatural articulateness seem real rather than forced, a way of indicating her vulnerability without pressing us for sympathy. Hers is a lived-in character, perking along, tougher than she looks, naturally funnier in speech and outlook than she probably knows. Juno is not a great movie; it does not have aspirations in that direction. But it is, in its little way, a truthful, engaging and welcome entertainment.