10 December 2007

Review: Juno

Genre: Drama

In another part of the film year, Juno would be hopelessly lost among the flotsam and jetsam of the studios, therefrom hopelessly unable of being elicited as anything more than just another like its sloppy company. In all its previews it hardly stands out - even to a filmically intelligent eye - as anything more than the average adolescent sex drama, in which unfortunate befallings proceeding from sex (i. e., pregnancy) force the children that the film introduces at its beginning to adolesce, to become the (at least partial) adults that the film sends off at its close. In practical terms, on the surface, it's the cinematic equivalent of the after-school special. And, even though such a concise plot description feels as dull as those typical briefs listed in a TV guide, in truth nothing further is really needed to inform the general audience member of the film's direction.
Why then, I ask, has Juno been released now, during the holiday season, when - with the minor exceptions that are the stifled holiday drivel - the films in release are nearly all the so called "Oscar hopefuls?" Why is this film worthy of such notice, of such high-brow positioning, and - most importantly - of such acclaim as that which it has received from critics high and low, touting all its virtues in "year's best" declarations? In this review, I shall attempt to answer these my questions and to, simultaneously, grapple with my answers, to determine whether or not Juno should be considered, as so many have, exceptional.
Primarily, it seems to me, Juno can be considered exceptional, because it is not a film that, like so many others in its cliche sub-genre, can be easily boiled down to its bare bones and then still retain the values and purposes that it, as a complete work, embodies. It cannot be simply "the teenage sex flick about the girl who gets pregnant by mistake and thereafter has to deal with it." Why not? There are several reasons:

  1. Though the structure of the play remains essentially the same - that is, the order of events of Juno remains fairly consistent with the way the 'stock' drama is supposed to play out - the finer details of that structure are often upturned in a way that provides for some new dynamism and as yet unexplored territory to creep about, revealing itself. Instead of the singularly minded characters and bland by rote occurrences of idle drama, the players of Juno have depth, vigor, that certain polymorphic human validity that encourages distinct, unpunctured credibility in the spontaneity, or unprescribed nature, of their actions. The impetuous sex, for example, is not motivated by the perennial uncontrollable male urge to fuck, as stock would have it; Mr. Cera's very George-Michael-ean Paulie Bleeker is hardly the kind of adolescent male to be afflicted by the age-old, stereotypical satyriasis. Instead, it is Juno herself who proposes and acts upon her sexual curiosities. Though the exact reasons for her doing so are never explicated, the fact stands, and the contribution to the argument that is her Diana-like personality - sharp-hewn, determined, forged but nevertheless chained by her childish fancies - is evidence in plenty: sex roles are not prescribed. And, though the play sort of recedes upon itself on this point by falling back upon the tried, Freudian-proffered (though subtly) explanation for this, her character, by absenting her biological mother, it still wards against the hackneyed-conventional by its
  2. [F]orcefully original dialogue. Juno and her friends and relations are admirably nearly endless spools of wickedly tight and allusive quips, quivers, and quotations, that the screenwriters seem to have invested in them with feverish delight, much as (though certainly to a greatly lesser extent than) Mr. Burgess, writer of A Clockwork Orange, or (perhaps more commensurately) Ms. Heckerling, writer of Clueless. The effect is a charming, flighty facility of dialect that both sets the characters high and away from their counterparts in the sub-genre and binds them as a group together, as a tight working wrestling pool of vitality and - tantamountly to the screenplay's success - self-awareness. When Juno automatically responds to her father's inquiry into her previous whereabouts by saying that she was out "dealing with things way beyond [her] maturity level," she both compounds and compresses her existential adolescent crisis in a wonderful double-headed turn of phrase, whose impact is greatly enhanced by the skill of
  3. [C]ompetent young actors. So often in the past have these teenage films been addressed to the audience by the mouths and tongues of actors and actresses unable to give much of their own, to add to the black-and-white material. Juno fortunately is not squandered in a similar case; the young people who play in it have truly found and increased the palpability of their characters, by either holding back or giving it all. Mr. Cera outfits himself in a character withdrawn into himself, voiced only when he need be, and somehow simultaneously both self-conscious and unconcerned with the criticisms of others, whoever they be. He seeks vigilantly the lighted path of honesty and valor and is not afraid to (at least internally) question the supposedly decided matters of hand. He is struggling, as much as Juno but in his own way, to manage the situation as well as possible. And, by merely looking askance, shuffling his feet in place, and speaking in a careful cadence (as if he were more trying to communicate than actually communicating), the actor brings his character out from where he otherwise could have been (i. e., in the periphery of the film as no one more than the somewhat gawky, mostly feckless, haphazard sperm-donor), to be where he ought be (i. e., in focus, in question, in responsibility, in study). Ms. Page does the same for her Juno, whose quirky forthrightness as outlined on the page is only by her work elucidated by innocence, uncertainty, and youth(!), where other actresses might have tried (undiluted) recalcitrance, intransigence, and misanthropy. Of course, there is no mistake that Juno is at heart the "uniquely rebellious [teenage] girl" that Not Another Teen Movie so deftly lampoons, but what is great about only her is that her character doesn't stop there, where it begins. Instead, like Mr. Cera's Bleeker, it spools out and spirals, gleaning complexities and ambiguities and a smartly applied, contrasting fealty to her age that does not have her, like so many other girls, waxing twenty-something and (trying to be) o so confident and mature, but does rather have her waning, flailing, and fighting to achieve those qualities which the others took for granted. She is a girl, and Ms. Page's facial expressions that pillow and support the lines that they form are the delights of the film.
These points break Juno from the brittle molds of concise and trite describability and inarguably float it above the awkwardly murky waters of the "teenage sex drama." To reduce it to such a stereotype is to injure, to unjustly dismiss all the good and important facts of its process.
Secondarily, what recommends Juno of acclaim is the stylistically aligned and consistent presentation of its cinematography. Though some may cavel and decry my opinion of the skill of this part of the film on the basis that it was not photographically 'correct' or otherwise artisitically meritorious, I stand fast and urge them to consider the criteria by which they judge such 'correctness' and artisitic merit. Do fine lines and tight colors, accurate points of focus and smart croppings, exist as absolute requirements for cinematographical achievement? Or may these points in seriousness be overlooked, as a master his formal training, in the sincere trying to let out something new? Obviously, reader, I am partial to the latter assessment, for Juno's cinematography seems to accomplish - to me - both what it was meant to accomplish (i. e., an optically engaging, visual recountment of the story) and what it was hoped to (i. e., an emotionally ripe, deeply personal exploration of the story's players). The intimate shots of the sex incident are the best examples of this achievement. Low camera positions, capturing the grounded but slightly wobbling feet of Juno in the dim yellow light of unbroken innocence as she undresses in front of Bleeker, whose patient and waiting legs rest in the near distance and whose naked body, attached to them, quietly suggests both mood and character dynamics as it is out of focus. Such is tenderness and brilliance, such is the film. However unpolished be it, be.
Finally, what compels Juno is its handy acting. I have already discussed the achievements of Mr. Cera and Ms. Page, and so here I have only to commend the beautifully distraught performance by Ms. Garner, whose earnest yet unembarrassed fragility as a woman so desirous of motherhood but piteously unable to conceive on her own was for me the unexpected (and immensely good) bonus of the film. With it her part of the story was able to speak well and deeply about the questions of being and purpose and continuity that are at the film's core.
I have only one complaint, or cause for feeling quizzical, of the film: the sketchy, drawn-out animation that introduced it and most of its credits. What was that about? Sure, it was fun for a little while, but then it just dragged on, intent on running the entire length of that introductory song, whose importance I assumed by its prominence but did not otherwise detect in its lyrics. And, other than the similarly designed titles beginning each seasonal chapter of the film, there was no relation to it in the entire rest of the film. It was exiguous, to say the least, and would have played much better in an abridged format, if it must play at all.
But, despite this bizarre inclusion, Juno still remains a fruitful and worthwhile film, one which I do recommend as, indeed, endearingly unusual for its sub-genre, exceptional, and one of the "year's best."

Grade: A-/B+

Post a Comment