Juno: Girl, interpreted

A novice screenwriter, and actress, nurture a grown-up film

Teenage girls in film have been catty (Heathers), they have been cool (Ghost World), and they have been competitive (Bring It On). But rarely have they been as flat-out attitudinal as 16-year-old Juno MacGuff, a deadpan waif with big eyes and an even bigger mouth.

Like a tough-talking film noir P.I., Juno (Ellen Page) has the battered cynicism of a guy who finds his wisdom at the bottom of a scotch bottle. But her slangy cadences are pure teen. Juno masticates speech like a wad of bubble gum in the 21st-century version of the wise-guy chatter of the Jets and the Sharks.

A brisk, blink-of-an-eye intro sets the pace of Juno, a winning teen sex comedy scripted by first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking).

One day, Juno consults the Magic 8-Ball “pee-stick,” and the answer comes up “knocked up.” As the convenience store clerk quips of Juno’s effort to shake out that damning pink plus sign on her pregnancy test, “That ain’t no Etch A Sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be un-did, homeskillet.” Juno gets on her hamburger hotline and sets up a visit to Women Now, declaring, “Hi, I’m just calling to procure a hasty abortion.”

Grossed out by the damp magazines at the Women Now office, Juno is convinced that she’s keeping her baby. She naturally finds her ideal adoptive parents in the classifieds.

Call it Heathers with a working-class soul. Juno’s world is a warm and fuzzy blue-collar America; its emotional set design includes rust recliners and a gruff-but-caring dad (J.K. Simmons) with an uncanny understanding of the twists and turns of a young girl’s psyche. Mac (Simmons) and stepmother/manicurist Bren (Allison Janney) react to the baby news in the mildly comatose fashion typical of the movie’s stylized rhythms. In good-dad style, Mac offers to accompany Juno to the Glacial Valley subdivision of the adoptive parents she’s spotted in the weekly advertiser. “You’re just a kid,” he explains. “I don’t want you to get ripped off by a bunch of baby-starved wing nuts.”

A more perfect pair of yuppie parents than Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner) could not be conceived, what with their fondness for vitamin water and aromatherapy.

But as Juno’s blessed event arrives, there is trouble in suburbia. Vanessa almost vibrates with baby lust. Mark, by contrast, is a barely domesticated dilettante husband; he worships Sonic Youth and Herschell Gordon Lewis and clings to the days when his band opened for the Melvins. The punched-gut expression on Mark’s face as he considers Juno’s ultrasound photo doesn’t lie: A baby was the wife’s idea.

Juno might echo the New Sincerity trend for crude comedy with a soft and gooey center (Lars and the Real Girl, Little Miss Sunshine, Knocked Up), but this film’s originality comes from its authorship and precociously cool actress in Cody and Page, respectively.

Juno springs from the wicked pen of the 29-year-old Cody, who shunned her middle-class upbringing, became a stripper and started a blog now called the Pussy Ranch. Her tales from the sex trade caught the eye of a Hollywood type who suggested Cody try her hand at a screenplay. As the legend goes, Cody cranked out her screenplay at a Target coffee shop using the template of 2001’s Ghost World, a film whose off-kilter girl spirit may be Juno’s clearest alt-girl inspiration.

Cody’s dialogue and characters come close to preciousness, as in the introduction of Juno’s baby-daddy. Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) is introduced microwaving a Hot Pocket and rubbing deodorant on his thighs in the Wes Anderson school of dramatic exposition where characters are predominantly defined by their lifestyle quirks. Juno conveys truths both macro and micro within its comic surrealism. Its take on a generational breakdown between the hyper-responsible Juno-types soured by divorce and a disposable culture, and the responsibility-shirking Gen X-ers like Mark feels laser-accurate.

But small details speak volumes, too, like the glamour shots of Mark and Vanessa dressed in white that line the couple’s cathedral-ceiling McMansion, and speak to the middlebrow prison Mark might understandably want to escape.

Juno may come on like a lion with the frantic bursts of its knocked-up heroine’s devilish wit. But it goes out like a lamb. Reitman’s collaboration with Cody is socially savvy comedy with heart and offers a teenage girl heroine to die for.