From the very beginning of Jason Reitman’s film Juno, the director lets you know something of the tone of the film. It opens with Ellen Page as the title character walking down the street of her suburb, chugging a gallon of Sunny Delight, in a title sequence that’s made to look like something out of a scrapbook. A bit of indie folk rock, and the mood is set: this is a lightly comic film about a quirky character. Juno is a high school student who is, if not exactly an outcast, not exactly the height of popularity either… but who doesn’t appear to be bothered by this. She has larger things on her mind, like the imminent development of a small person in her abdomen.
In reality, not entirely an unheard-of high school concern.
While initially in a bit of denial, Juno doesn’t panic about her situation, except when it comes to telling her father and step-mother. J. K. Simmons plays the father, and gives a good impression of a patient, loving father who is just a bit out of sorts over having to deal with the issue. Page’s Juno is a sometimes-mouthy but capable young woman whose maturity zig-zags like an actual teenager. Wanting neither to raise the child nor to have an abortion, she decides to give the child up for adoption, finding a childless couple in a local paper and agreeing to give them the child in exchange for them covering her medical expenses. Meanwhile, she has to resolve her feelings towards the father of the child, her not-quite-boyfriend, played by Michael Cera.
Although the film has a distinct narrative start and end point with the pregnancy, it feels like a “slice of life” film in a lot of ways. The pregnancy isn’t the entirety of the story, so much as it’s the impetus for throwing these characters together. The “perfect couple”, played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, provide as much of the emotional tone of the film as Juno herself does — and certainly a lot more than Cera’s ultra-passive boyfriend character. The anxiety of a couple looking to adopt is looked at, even if not as much as the issues Juno faces as the pregnant teen, and their personalities provide most of the actual drama of the film. Ellen Page as Juno provides the comic elements; Juno walks around with such a constant chip on her shoulder about so many things that one could almost suspect she got pregnant simply to spite society’s expectations. Yet there’s little of meanness to the character; it’s simply a reminder that even though she may sometimes be mature for a teenager, she’s still a teenager and essentially just a kid.
That said, I had some trouble getting into the film. It’s not that there’s anything greatly wrong with it (save one aspect, which I’ll get to in a bit); it’s just that there isn’t anything all that special about it either. It’s sort of funny, sort of touching, sort of charming, and sort of interesting… but it’s always and only “sort of” these things. Any substantive form of praise I could give it comes with a qualifier. There was never a point where I cared deeply about the characters, or laughed loudly, or felt as though this story was substantially more interesting than any other ordinary life.
This may have been hampered a bit by the distraction factor of the music. Juno mentions her favorite bands at one point, discussing musical tastes with the prospective adoptive father. She lists bands such as the Stooges and the Runaways; hard early punk rock groups. It fits the off-beat personality of the character that she listens to music that was counter-culture decades before she was born. It’s hard to say whether that music would have fit the film itself, but whether it would or not, it’s not what was playing in the film. There are a few songs from acts such as the Velvet Underground and the Kinks — again, groups at the paradoxical nexus of mainstream and counter-culture — but most of the soundtrack is strictly amateur hour. It’s indie folk rock of the sort that serves as a reminder of why so many acts remain indie — because the appeal is too limited for anything more. These songs would be inadequate for the corner of a coffee shop; the highest praise I can offer is that they are, at least, on key. But the guitar work shows no particular skill, the singing is thin and reedy, and the lyrics are inane patter. It would be difficult to come up with a more irritating soundtrack had the filmmakers tried.
My irritation at the music, which was frequent enough to be hard to ignore, may have contributed significantly to my inability to appreciate the film as anything more than simply a mildly amusing diversion. On the other hand, had the film been more than that, it ought to have been able to overcome its soundtrack.