It is possible not to be charmed by Juno McDuff. The motor-mouthed 16-year-old martyr and the new movie that bears her name both take aim at some sacred cows of American culture: Teen sex, abortionists, suburban class warfare. But watching Juno is kind of like watching someone try to play darts with a Nerf ball. It's a satire where the targets are propped up right in front of you — all of them painted in broad shades of stereotype — but the filmmakers, for all their affected irreverence, show a distinct lack of nerve. It's the cinematic equivalent of a kid who wears a "Hugs Not Drugs" T-shirt to be ironic but, deep down, actually means it.
This is evident right from the first blasts of screenwriter Diablo Cody's celebrated dialogue, a hyper-referential cocktail of snark, sass and pop-culture name-checking that bends over backward to avoid upsetting the movie's very delicate — and very profitable — PG-13 rating. Juno creates a world where the words "a-hole," "frickin'-A" and "hells yeah" are not, in fact, the lame utterances of bespectacled honor students but the battle cries of a true iconoclast.
To her credit, the actress playing this rebel dork is talented enough to make her character's contradictions almost make sense. As played by Ellen Page, the defiantly pregnant Juno is a headstrong mix of know-it-all arrogance and hedonistic pride. She's the type of kid you could see having sex for fun, regardless of the emotional consequences. But Cody and director Jason Reitman haven't found a way to reconcile Juno's apparent intelligence with her inability to demand a condom; worse, they don't come up with a compelling rationale for why this walking font of sarcasm would run screaming from the abortion clinic after hearing the admonishments of one wimpy pro-lifer.
And for a film that claims to worship at the altar of '70s punk — specifically Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and the Runaways — Juno sure as hell doesn't rock. Reitman chooses instead to borrow more than a few tricks from the Wes Anderson Academy of Twee: hand-illustrated title cards marking off the four seasons, jokey cutaway scenes, and a wall-to-wall soundtrack of acoustic guitar with deliberately off-key vocals. (You'd think he'd avoid going so far as to include tracks by Anderson faves like the Kinks and the Velvet Underground, but perhaps imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.) All of which runs contrary to what Juno herself would drop onto her turntable: "When you're used to listening to the raw power of Iggy and the Stooges, everything else just sounds kind of precious by comparison," she says. If you're accustomed to smart, truly acerbic teen flicks like Ghost World, Election, Rushmore or even Clueless, you could say the same thing about Juno.
Showing at the AMC Forum 30, 44681 Mound Rd., Sterling Heights; 586-254-5663.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].