In "Juno," a spunky teenage girl (Ellen Page) named after the Roman goddess of women and childbirth gets herself accidentally knocked-up and decides to carry the pregnancy to term and then give "the thing" (as she fondly refers to her unborn progeny) up for adoption to a picture-perfect couple she finds advertised in the local PennySaver.
If the premise sounds like just the thing to raise a few eyebrows at some conservative media watchdog groups, wait until they see how it turns out. Of course, any forthcoming blasts of righteous condemnation will probably only add to the overall experience of the movie, which is already about as entertaining as it gets. Directed by Jason Reitman ("Thank You for Smoking") from a screenplay by hot newcomer and media darling Diablo Cody, whose memoir "Candy Girl" recounted her year as an "unlikely stripper" in Minnesota, "Juno" is hilarious and sweet-tempered, perceptive and surprisingly grounded. It's also a gust of fresh air, perspective-wise, in that it follows the gestational misadventures of a girl, whose hotness is not actually her most salient characteristic, from the girl's point of view.
At first, it seems as if the script is going to stay glib and superficial and that Juno will communicate via rimshot zingers exclusively, even in moments of crisis. Page first appears on-screen walking to the drugstore, chugging Sunny Delight from a gallon jug on her way to buy yet another home pregnancy test. Pint-sized and intense, Juno has a sardonic nonchalance that masks whatever emotional turmoil she's going through. But her deadpan stance occasionally falls away to reveal what she is -- a young kid in a tough spot, which only makes her earlier bravado feel all the more authentic. Although some of her one-liners feel forced, others capture the sardonic lack of affect that cool adolescent girls -- and we haven't seen them on-screen, it seems, since "Ghost World" came out in 2001 -- find so comforting. "I'm going to call Women Now," she tells her best friend, Leah (Olivia Thirlby), after breaking the news of her pregnancy, "because they help women now."
It also helps that the sublime Michael Cera has been cast as Bleeker, Juno's buddy and secret admirer and the unlikely father of her baby. A track geek whose milky, short-clad thighs, intense (possibly myopic) gaze and terry cloth headbands make him more intriguing than he knows, Bleeker belongs to the same genus as the characters Cera played in "Superbad" and "Arrested Development" -- smart, awkward, sincere, serious, weirdly irresistible. A gruff-but-lovable J.K. Simmons and a saucy Allison Janney are equally adorable as Juno's dad and stepmom, Mac and Brenda MacGuff, whom Cody and Reitman treat with a degree of affection and respect rarely afforded to parents in teen comedies. ("You're not going to be a Pop-Pop," Brenda tells Mac at one point. "Someone else is going to find a blessing from Jesus in this garbage dump of a situation.")
But the movie doesn't truly blossom until Juno meets and starts to get to know Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), a beautiful couple in their mid-30s who live in lovingly sterilized McMansion in a gated community. A serious, soft-spoken executive who is desperate for a baby but has been unable to conceive, Vanessa comes across at first like a type-A control freak. Juno identifies more easily with Mark, a former musician who writes commercial jingles and yearns for his lost youth.
Despite having opted for a "closed" adoption, which means she'll have no involvement in the baby's life as it grows up, Juno finds herself nonetheless drawn to the Lorings' house as she feels the need to share the experience with someone who cares and feels more and more alienated from her classmates.
Mark, who works from home alone, is always glad to see her, though for him, Juno's visits are a chance to regress, haul out the comic books and swap music mixes. As much as Juno enjoys their camaraderie, it's tinged with a sense that they're communicating from parallel dimensions -- she's hanging out with his inner high-schooler while her grown-up self finds his immaturity appalling.
Meanwhile, the more she gets to know Vanessa, the more she understands what her choice means. In one of the movie's most beautiful scenes -- Garner is touchingly awkward in it -- Juno encourages Vanessa to talk to the baby in her belly, and Vanessa delivers what is perhaps the movie's least clever, most heartbreaking line, a shy "I can't wait to meet you" so intimate you forget she's talking to the baby through another person, at a mall. Funny as "Juno" is, it's scenes like these that ultimately make it so satisfying. Deceptively superficial at the outset, the movie deepens into something poignant and unexpected.
"Juno." MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and language. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.