I usually attend four or five film festivals a year, and my assignments usually fall firmly within the 'genre' category -- especially the scary stuff. If it's a horror movie, a blood-soaked action-fest, a sci-fi thriller or a Japanese story about creepy undead children -- that's the stuff I'm assigned first. So how do we explain this weird aberration? There were several cool horror flicks at Sundance '07, and yet my favorite film (by far) was a sweet little chick flick called Waitress. And then today, after enjoying some solid old-school splatter from Dario Argento AND Stuart Gordon, I was most blown away by an off-kilter, low-key and wonderfully original comedy called Juno.
Sometimes (and particularly at film festivals) you like a movie so much that you want to get the word out there as soon as possible -- but with time being very tight you don't really have the time to give a film the thousand-word love letter it deserves. And so, because I'm as busy as I am lazy, I'll give you a surface-level plot synopsis and then just dole out some bullet points on Juno's most excellent components.
The story centers on an acerbic-yet-lovable 16-year-old (yes, named Juno) who gets knocked up by her boyfriend and then decides to follow through with the pregnancy and give the infant to a loving yuppie couple who can't have a baby of their own. That's pretty much it, god bless the whip-smart, snarky and powerfully funny screenplay by blogger / author / former stripper Diablo Cody. So with that out of the way, here's why I dug this movie so much that I wanted to crawl up on the screen and give it a big sloppy kiss:
- The screenplay. Yes, again. It's smart and sassy, warm yet frequently caustic, realistic but kinda storybookish -- and very, very funny. Holy jeez is Juno a funny little movie. From arcane pop culture references to casually amusing slang words to pitch-perfect dialog volleys, Juno might be the smartest 'teen' movie since the also-brilliant Election. (I guarantee that once this movie hits the scene and finds its proper audience, it will be an oft-quoted flick. Trust me. And if there's any justice in the movie world, it'll become the "next" Napoleon Dynamite.)
- The cast. At risk of sounding like Hyperbole Man, I can't remember the last indie-style ensemble that I enjoyed this much. From the flawless lead performance by Ellen Page, all the way down the line ... not only is there no weak link in the cast, but every one of the actors is given two or three scenes to steal for their very own. As Juno's awesomely wise-assed papa, J.K. Simmons is nothing short of brilliant. Michael Cera as the geeky-cool little boyfriend? Just great. Alison Janney as the sweetly nerdish stepmom and Olivia Thirlby as the zing-tongued best friend? Marvelous. (I'm running out of adjectives here.) Plus this movie gives Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner (as the baby-craving suburbanites) some of their best material in years. Flicks like this make me wish the Academy gave out an Oscar for Best Ensemble, dammit.
- The tone. Juno veers from outrageously acidic to legitimately warm-hearted without missing a beat, and none of the stops along the way strike a false note. After reading the premise you might expect Juno to take a pro-life / pro-choice stance at every opportunity -- but damn if this unpredictably eclectic flick doesn't deliver a wide array of emotion, attitude and perspective. (In this regard it's pretty similar to that lovely Waitress I keep raving about.)
- The music. Juno is absolutely stuffed with amazingly catchy songs that (get this) actually complement the story! I'm not much of a music expert (and even less of a music 'critic'), but the tunes somehow start to feel like another member of the ensemble cast. (I've never heard of Kimya Dawson and Mateo Messina before, but I'll be amazingly pissed off if Fox Searchlight doesn't release a Juno soundtrack CD.)
- The director. You know all that stuff about "sophomore slumps"? That's the theory that says any director's second film will be a disappointment relative to his or her first. But after delivering a confidently satirical triple his first time out (Thank You for Smoking), Jason Reitman hits a bases-clearing grand-slam at his second trip to the plate. So if you're still holding on to that "Oh, he's just working because his dad's a big-time Hollywood honcho" garbage, you're going to want to toss that attitude onto the curb. Frankly, Juno is a better film than most of Ivan Reitman's directorial efforts, which is not meant to impugn Ivan's very solid body of work -- but more to illustrate how much enthusiasm I have for Juno.
So that's pretty much it for now. I have to run out to see a new George Romero zombie movie (yay!), but I couldn't let too much of the Toronto Film Festival creep by without sharing my nine cents on Juno. (Much as I hate to sound like I'm "overhyping" this movie, I simply refuse to downplay how much I enjoyed it.) And this is coming from a guy who loves blood & guts horror flicks more than anything in the world ... but when December rolls around, I can guarantee that Juno will place very highly on my Gotta See It Top Ten Awesome Favorites of the Year list. Right next to that lovely little Waitress.
Fore more on Juno, see Kim's Telluride review of the film.