Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Look at the Illustrious Oddity of "Juno" After 10 Years

Ellen Page in Juno
It started with a chair.

The idea of indie comedies dominating the box office and Academy Awards was still a foreign idea in 2007. It had only been a year since Little Miss Sunshine popularized a quirky style of cinema that was charming, but proved to have a short shelf life. It reached peak perfection the following year when Juno launched Hard Candy and X-Men star Ellen Page into the queen of twee characters, whose Diablo Cody-penned script was at best different, and at worst grating. There have been movies with dialogue as stylized as Juno, but few captured the essence underneath, for which the controversial tale of one Minnesota girl's teenage pregnancy became a different kind of coming of age story. It's likely why the film grossed $143 internationally on a $7.5 million budget. Even for those who hated it, it was hard to deny the unforgettable approach to youth and maturity. Many films would try to be as brazen in their quirkiness, but the singularity of Juno's magic continues to shine brighter than its imitators 10 years later.

There had been indie comedies about pregnancy. Waitress had come out earlier that year with enough charm to spawn its own Tony-nominated musical. However, there had never been a film so deeply rooted in its image quite like director Jason Reitman's sophomore movie. Following the tepid Thank You for Smoking, his next film would have a production story as twee as any line of dialogue. In desperation for another project, he stumbled across a script from "Candy Girl" author and former stripper Diablo Cody. It was her first script, and it managed to convey an image that would haunt the rest of her career. While Cody has prided herself on making female-centered tales of empowerment, many judged her as the phony slang-slaying indie darling with a weird arm tattoo. She was a more casual voice, and a blogger who prided herself on being open minded about her risque past. Sure, Napoleon Dynamite was even more idiosyncratic, but Juno broke the barrier into twee indie comedies being taken seriously. 

Much like Cody, Juno defined Ellen Page for the next few years. As a child star slowly taking on more challenging work like Mouth to Mouth and Hard Candy, she was destined to be the next big thing. In irony not escaping the movie, it involved playing a role against type where she would be an eccentric teenager, not unlike a hipster paradox, who referenced Soupy Sales and McSweeneys in casual conversation. Even with some characters escaping her whimsical gymnastics of the English language, the film embraced the quirkiness to emphasize a point. Juno was a teenager, defined by her interests. She saw the world in eccentric manners and was defiant to follow the social norms, or even those of her broken family. The use of language created a sense of disconnect from the real world, and one that was illustrated in the film's animated interstitial that chronicled the pregnancy between summer, fall, spring, and winter. 

But Cody's intents went beyond silly language and a soundtrack that popularized modern folk artists like Kimya Dawson and Barry Louis Polisar. It was all to suggest that Juno was a teenager with eccentric tastes, but it also helped to suggest that maybe her pregnancy was a childish mistake that could be handled in a mature manner. The juxtaposition between Juno's struggle and that of a rich couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) best depicts this as their uptight manners lead to arguments over what color the nursery should be (why is yellow a neutral color, anyways?). They are welcoming of adopting Juno's baby, but it comes at different insecurities that a teenager isn't able to understand. Adulthood is more than playing records and talking on hamburger phones. It's about, in a sense, growing up and putting childish things behind you. It's the root of Bateman's character, and of which evolves from adoring to tragic as the story progresses. By the end, Juno's glimpse into adulthood via pregnancy shows her own need to look at life differently and maybe be more responsible.

The film had all the trimmings of an indie smash. Besides a big box office, it was a film whose weekly grosses grew, even earning a spot in the national Top 10 while being in limited release. The marketing focused on the colorful, twee imagery and Page's colorful language. Along with the rise of co-star Michael Cera following that summer's breakout hit Superbad, the film became a cultural phenomenon, for better or worse. People loved the movie for its unique look at the teenage years, admiring Cody's rich and comical language. Others found the very idea of a film that didn't conform to the norms to be grating. No Oscar season film had been as singular with its folk music since The Graduate, and even then it was a film whose conventions were placed inside a narrative that was controversial. Much like other 2007 movies Waitress and Knocked Up, its discussion of pregnancy was taboo, with some believing that Juno lead to a rise in teenage pregnancies (dubbed "The Juno Effect").

Roger Ebert named it the best movie of the year, and it was on track to win major awards, including a screenplay win for Cody at the BAFTAS. The little film that could redefined indie comedy, for better or worse. Films like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist would come along and try to cash in on its success, but even Page couldn't muster enthusiasm with her follow-up Smart People. It was a film that revolutionized indie comedy, but also created a murky distrust of its bulging new style. While traces of Juno could still be seen in a modern acceptance of indie pop soundtracks, few films are as defiantly eccentric as Juno, which has both lead its legacy to be one of singular success and ridicule. Still, its first year established it as an influential juggernaut, eventually earning Cody a Best Original Screenplay Oscar win. 

It's hard to tell how Juno will age because, even in 2007, it felt like it was from another era. Its language wasn't that of the Mean Girls era. The references were equally transcendent, finding dovetailing interests in slasher flicks and grunge music (though Sonic Youth is just noise). Speaking as the film's influence didn't change all of modern pop culture, save for maybe the twee high school comedy, there's no way of even suggesting that it was a 2007 movie. It's probably part of the film's allure, especially with Entertainment Weekly naming Juno as one of the Top 100 greatest pop culture characters. The only thing dating it is that it distilled a talented cast that largely still produces quality work, whether it be Reitman, Cody, Page, Cera, or any supporting player like the underrated Olivia Thirlby, Bateman, Garner, or even future Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, and Allison Janney. Juno is a film with a specific ring to it, and few films have matched its pitch since. 10 years later, it's still one of the most unique looks at pregnancy and youth in general, and I don't see what anyone can see in anyone else but Juno.

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