Full disclosure: I walked into Juno not expecting to like it very much. I was going to see right through its too-hip vernacular and faux-clever pop culture reference points, I was. And then I was going to write a review about how terribly pedestrian the whole thing felt.

This isn't that review, because I was wrong to expect all of that. Juno is a good movie. Perhaps even a very good movie. Along the way, it also proves me wrong about the talents of Bright Young Thing Ellen Page, whom everybody but me liked in Hard Candy, nobody liked or even noticed in X-Men: The Last Stand, and who is now being widely - and I daresay rightfully - bandied about as a potential Oscar nominee.

Juno is the latest in 2007's oddly robust string of movies about pregnancy. It opens with high-school junior Juno MacGuff (Page) learning that she is heavy with child, as they say, standing in the world's most unconvincingly-written convenience store. In all honesty, the opening came very close to validating my close-minded preconception: Juno and the clerk (Rainn Wilson) trade simple awful quips as she steels herself to tell all of the people that need to know: her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby), her other best friend and baby daddy Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), her father (J.K. Simmons) and her step-mother Bren (Allison Janney).

For the first twenty minutes, give or take, the film teeters on the edge of bearable. Juno and her peers speak in a confounding invented argot that is meant, I think, to sound like real teenagerspeak, but almost every line clangs along with the unmistakable tones of a first-time screenwriter. That screenwriter is Diablo Cody nΓ©e Brook Busey-Hunt, a woman whose life story is frankly amazing, and would threaten to overwhelm the movie if I recapped it here. Google her. Anyway, for a goodly chunk of the movie, Cody's writing seems to be altogether clever without being the least bit smart (a regular feature of hipster indie comedies in these post-Wes Anderson days), full of references to pop-culture ephemera from the '70s and '80s that disguises itself as sly and obscure when really it's just warm nostalgia for the generational cohort born from 1975-85, and slang words that I am almost certain are not actual slang (if any of my high-school aged readers can verify that "wizard" is now used as an adjective, a synonym for "cool," I'd be grateful). Either way, it comes off like nadsat by way of The O.C..

Then something interesting happens: after a brief fling with the idea of abortion that comes off as infinitely more believable than anything in Knocked Up, Juno decides to adopt a couple to adopt her baby, and she settles on the charming suburban yuppies Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). This is the first step on a path that will ultimately lead to Juno becoming a little more grown-up with a better understanding of what life is like, and at about this time, the cloying slang which had until now been so pervasive simply stops, as surely as though a faucet had been turned off. Suddenly Juno begins talking like a normal person, with only a few lapses into over-precious dialogue (the truly unfortunate line "Thundercats are go!"* comes at a particularly awful moment, casting a distinct pall over the film's climax). I am certain that Cody didn't mean for it to happen this way, but I went from pretty much hating Juno to finding her mostly sympathetic if abrasive, all because of her abandonment of conspicuously "written" dialogue.

As it moves along, away from artifice into character study, Juno becomes very sweet and genial. This is a shockingly rare indie comedy in that there is not a single character of any importance that we end up hating. Even Vanessa and Mark, who both suffer from crippling personality deficits (and in Mark's case, a seeming taste for young flesh, if you know what I mean) ultimately seem flawed without being despicable; some very bad things are done but they aren't hard to understand or even find a bit sympathetic (I mean that Mark flirts with Juno, and it's fucking creepy. I'm not sure if any of that was the intent).

The characters are so completely human because of the top-notch cast inhabiting them, I suspect: some, like Cera and Simmons, are so consistently good at what they do that we expect nothing less (I assume nobody will hold it against me if I suggest that Cera gives the film's most appealing performance), some, like Bateman and Janney, are good enough often enough that when they are this good, it's not amazing so much as it is comforting: "oh, Jason Bateman, I do love watching you." Garner is a standout in the supporting cast, having done precious little to establish herself as any kind of great actress, and in what I'm happy to call the role of her career, she turns a stock figure - type-A yuppie supermommy - into a frankly beautiful tragic figure. Truth be told, I'd have watched a whole movie of Vanessa and Mark in all their emotionally stunted glory, but in the film as it stands they are a wonderful catalyst for Juno's arc. This is her movie through and through, of course, every character existing only in relation to her, and Page is extremely good in the role. Not the be-all of acting, I'm a little leery of joining the chorus proclaiming her the great actress of her generation. But she rises above the dialogue when it is clumsy, nestles into the role when it is subtle, and makes for the most exceptional movie teen in many a year.

Like so many comedies, Juno is not anxious to do anything too smart behind the camera: director Jason Reitman proved in his last project, Thank You For Smoking, that he has great comic timing, a deft hand at shepherding actors, and no eye whatsoever for the camera, and those skills all come to bear in his sophomore effort, which aims a little lower than that satire and hits its target accordingly. Some of the compositions are a little too "just so," including a final shot that really could have ended about half-way through, and the music choices are soullessly hip (this is at least partially Cody's fault: when you name drop the Stooges and Sonic Youth, these things happen, and I am dumbfounded by a scene that suggests that Mott the Hoople's wonderful but decidedly overplayed "All the Young Dudes" is somehow a lost classic). But Reitman is clearly not trying to be a supremely cunning directing with this project, he just wants to get it right. He succeeds, along with the rest of the creative team. Juno has modest aspirations and it fulfills them, and is probably the sweetest and most human film in the current landscape of oh-so-serious prestige events.




*I think this is a misquote: I watched Thundercats in my single-digit years, and I absolutely cannot recall this being a catchphrase. What I do know is that there was a perfectly dreadful puppet series from the '60s called Thunderbirds Are GO! - a half-memory conflated into a mantra, perhaps? At any rate, a Google search for "Thundercats are go" doesn't reveal any primary sources.>*