One of my favorite painters is an excessively eccentric character named Joe Coleman. Coleman has two obsessions that dominate his work. The first is a focus on the dark and macabre. Favorite subjects include Charles Manson, John Dillinger, the Apocalypse, and Harry Houdini.
He's also known for cramming every painting with hidden, almost microscopic details. These could be hidden words or very subtle images. The end result is a painting one can look at day after day and continue to find new things.
It's on this second point that "Juno," the delightful new comedy from director Jason Reitman ("Thank You For Smoking.") shines more than any film this year. While too many details can slow down the pace or distract the audience, the right director knows that the smallest touch can make all the difference.
One of the details that sticks in my mind is Juno's hamburger phone. The film starts out with 16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) going through her third pregnancy test at the local drug store. Resigned to the fact of her pregnancy she runs home, picks up her hamburger phone and calls her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby.) Later Juno uses the same hamburger phone to call the "Women Now" abortion clinic. While she's on the phone she has to smack it a few times to get it to work.
Juno ends up going to the clinic but chooses not to go through with it. The whole experience is just unnerving for her. Instead she decides to give up her baby for adoption. With the backing of her two very supportive parents, Mac (J.K. Simmons) and Brenda (Allison Janney,) Juno meets and befriends Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) two prospective parents. All while she's dealing with the physical symptoms of pregnancy and the struggle to give the child away Juno also must deal with her feelings for Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera of "Superbad.") Unlike how we're taught to expect unplanned pregnancies to begin and commence, in "Juno" the girl is the initiator and the one to flee from a relationship.
"Juno" has been highly regarded as the hip, indie "it-film" of the year, drawing comparisons to last year's "Little Miss Sunshine" as a quirky, comedy/drama that will generate both laughs and tears. Really, though, there's a much better comparison. The torch has been passed from one generation to the next. In 2001 my favorite film of the year was a little indie gem based off of a graphic novel. It was called "Ghost World" and it was an anthem for every odd outsider teenager. In the character of Enid Coleslaw we had a young woman struggling to mature and find her place in the world, a sarcastic, biting character who could heap nothing but cynicism and contempt on all the phoniness around her.
That's basically Juno, too. She's smart, quick, and fearless. She recognizes the absurdity of high school life. And yet as in control as she may appear to be, in reality she's very confused and conflicted with the challenges facing her. And so what we have is a rich, fascinating character portrait, a film with a gentle, precise blend of drama and comedy.
While Page's performance as Juno could arguably carry the film on its own she certainly has some great help. Cera as the tic-tac munching, perpetually running, father of Juno's baby gives a performance similar to his Evan in "Superbad." Also particularly noteworthy is Juno's father Mac. It's a special treat to see Simmons as a loving parent when you're more accustomed to watching him play the vicious Neo-Nazi skinhead leader Vern Schillinger on HBO's prison drama "Oz."
One of the most important characters in the film does not even grace the screen. Central to the film is the music of anti-folk singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson. It's hard to imagine a more perfect complement to the character of Juno and the film's overall visual style. Dawson first rose to prominence as half of the Moldy Peaches, a band she formed with friend Adam Green. The band's sound - as well as Dawson's more recent solo work - is generally pretty quiet and playful. It has the same wit and sense of humor as Juno's dialogue. The best equivalent of a film utilizing the potential of just a single artist is P.T. Anderson's "Magnolia" and its use of Aimee Mann.
I saw "Ghost World" five times when it was in theatres and have probably seen it at least half a dozen times more since then. I know "Juno" to be deep, fresh, and entertaining enough to warrant as many viewings. Here's hoping that "Juno" will make it to the right people at the right time, just as "Ghost World" did for me. Sometimes that's all you need - a piece of art you can connect with that will justify your feelings and existence.
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