Ellen Page, left, and Olivia Thirlby in “Juno.”
Think of the premise and it sounds like a dozen Lifetime movies: a teenage girl gets pregnant, and resolves to find the perfect parents to raise her baby. Seen it all before, right?
Now, erase all preconceived notions of canned angst, the disappointed and embarrassed mom and dad, the scorn of classmates and other standard plot devices, and Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s wondrous “Juno” emerges from the fog of all that melodrama. It feels fresh because it is, thanks to Cody’s sharp-witted script as well as the agile brain and expressive face given to the title character by actress Ellen Page.
In the opening scene, Juno is standing in a front yard in suburban Minnesota, chugging Sunny D and staring at the battered living-room recliner where it all happened. She surprise-seduced her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera of “Superbad”), and now her “eggo is preggo.” She briefly considers abortion, but after being turned off by the casual nature of the clinic, she decides to find suitable adoptive parents.
She finds them in the Penny Saver: Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) are picture-perfect and live in a spacious suburban home. Vanessa is baby-crazy, and Mark is a former alternative rocker who now keeps his artifacts of cool in a spare room. Juno and Mark find common ground based on punk rock and gory films, and the girl is convinced she’s found the perfect place for the child.
But not everything is exactly right, and not for stock reasons. “Juno” works so miraculously because it clues into things that drive people — hipster credibility, a primal urge to raise children, reclamation of lost youth, and pure friendship as the basis for love. And Cody’s first script is like music: when characters use super-hip lingo, it’s a defense mechanism — they wield language like ninja stars.
There’s real relationship stuff in this dialogue. When her father, Mac, played by J.K. Simmons, sees Juno at 8 months, he says, “Hey there, big puffy version of Junebug,” just like a loving dad who’s a little bewildered by his daughter’s condition might say to take the edge off things. Simmons is great here as a tough but good-natured father, and the rest of the cast, including Allison Janney as her stepmother, Bren, is spot-on.
But Reitman and Cody rightly rely on Page (“Hard Candy”) to bring their creation to life, and she delivers with a refreshing and natural performance — this is only the beginning of a long and great career for this Canadian actress. With “Juno,” Reitman, who debuted last year with the impressive “Thank You for Smoking,” has made a film with just as much wit as his previous work, but with a lot more heart.