The popular mini-genre of unwanted pregnancies being taken to term continues with “Juno,” an ultra-smart-mouthed comedy about a planned adoption that goes weirdly awry. Given that the girl who gets saddled with child here is a 16-year-old high schooler, played by the conspicuously talented Ellen Page, this zippy item skews younger than either “Knocked Up” or “Waitress,” the latter also a Fox Searchlight release. With Michael Cera (“Superbad”) as the unwitting underage dad, Jason Reitman’s modestly scaled follow-up to his sharp debut feature, “Thank You for Smoking,” is rather adventurously skedded for release on Dec. 14, and should score well as an alternative holiday choice to year-end blockbusters and serious awards contenders.
The way the torrents of archly amusing, vocabulary-bending dialogue trip off the tongues of the characters, you know you’re in the hands of some manner of distinctive writer, and she would be Diablo Cody — a young scribe very handy at shotgunning bright teen quips, as well as catching the attitudes of two distinct types of adults.
In fact, the voluminous ruminations of precocious sprite Juno MacGuff (Page) cascade so thick and fast at the outset that they almost weigh things down, so heavy are they with self-conscious cleverness, all in the service of recounting how she recently engineered the circumstances under which she became pregnant by her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Cera).
After a visit to an uninviting clinic for an abortive “hasty abortion,” Juno informs her parents of her condition and of her decision to give the baby up for adoption, in an uproarious scene marked by a succession of deliciously delivered zingers from J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as her working-class dad and step-mom.
Juno finds the perfect couple to adopt the sprig, the oh-so-attractive and rich Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner), who live in an antiseptic new McMansion an hour from town (pic was shot in and around Vancouver). Vanessa is dying to have a kid, and after the deal is sealed, Juno, who keeps Paulie at a distance, makes periodic visits to the house to show the Lorings ultrasound photos and such.
But 40ish Mark, a successful music composer for commercials who’s still frustrated over his failed bid for rock stardom, begins getting a funny look in his eye when Juno’s around. Initially bonding through music, they subsequently debate the merits of goremeisters Dario Argento and Herschell Gordon Lewis. When he finally gets too close for comfort, it begins to throw his marriage and the adoption entirely up for grabs.
Despite the queasiness of this midstream section, final act is nicely worked out by Cody, whose dialogue occasionally seems too precociously precious for words but who nevertheless makes a decisive impression as a crafty and playful writer to watch. Under Reitman’s fleet direction, pic races along at a pacey clip, propelled by generally catchy songs, many of them by Kimya Dawson.
Dialogue and pic overall are saved from cloying glibness by the fact that Juno is not only a smarty-pants, but also genuinely smart and self-possessed, even if her condition occasionally threatens her composure. Film’s ace in the hole, however, is Page, whose great promise indicated in “Hard Candy” is more than confirmed by her winning performance here. Lovely young thesp handles the reams of dialogue with poise and aplomb.
Cera’s low-key modesty and reserve prove an effective counterbalance as the school track star who feels rather dissed by his old pal.
Production values are modest but up to the job.