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Indie flicks with a quirk ethic

Films such as 'Juno' and 'Lars and the Real Girl' raise the question of how 'real' a fragile tale needs to be.

April 13, 2008|Noel Murray | Special to The Times

The backlash against indie comedy hit "Juno" began long before teenagers started saying "shenanigans" all the time. Let's face it, the movie lost some potential fans in its first five minutes, when Rainn Wilson's snarky convenience store clerk tells the pregnant heroine that a baby ain't like an Etch A Sketch -- "This is one doodle that can't be un-did, home skillet," he clucks -- and singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson's girly monotone rises on the soundtrack. The dialogue, the music, the cartoony opening credits . . . these are all signifiers of a certain kind of not-for-everyone hipster sensibility.

Much the same is true of "Lars and the Real Girl," another fall '07 festival staple due out on DVD on Tuesday. Both films have almost as many passionate detractors as they do supporters, and not coincidentally, both fall into a category of independent film sometimes dismissed as "twee," "precious" or "indie-quirky." Along with "Napoleon Dynamite," "Little Miss Sunshine" and the collected works of Wes Anderson, "Juno" and "Lars and the Real Girl" seem to exist in an alternate cinematic universe, where everyone dresses and acts like fantastical children's book characters set adrift in a chilly adult world.

It's no wonder, then, that these movies play so well with college kids, high school misfits and adults who crave simplicity. In "Juno," pregnant teen Juno MacGuff (played by impish, acid-tongued Ellen Page) improbably finds support from her dad, her stepmom, her friends and the upscale couple who want to adopt her kid.

In "Lars and the Real Girl," a prim small-town loner (played by Ryan Gosling, padded out with down jackets and a neatly trimmed mustache) announces to his family that he's fallen in love with a sex toy, and the whole community rallies to support his delusion. Both films have complications, but they're plot complications, not really grounded in the real troubles of real pregnant teens and real borderline-psychotic adults.

The problem for audiences is deciding how "real" a fragile, poignant serio-comedy needs to be. For those not instantly smitten with "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody's slangy dialogue and anti-authoritarian inclinations, the movie can be easily picked apart. "Juno" gives short shrift to the abortion issue by confronting the heroine with one lone, pathetic pro-life protester and one lone, apathetic clinic clerk. And for all her flippant distrust of well-groomed suburbanites who dwell in McMansions, the apparently jobless Juno has enough money to buy herself as many Big Gulps and pregnancy tests as she likes and to surprise the father of her child with what amounts to a crate of orange Tic-Tacs.

Not-quite-adult world

As for "Lars and the Real Girl," leaving aside screenwriter Nancy Oliver's somewhat old-fashioned vision of a small town where everybody knows one another (and agrees with one another), the movie is overly coy in the way it treats the central relationship. Put bluntly: Lars and his sex doll never have sex. In fact, the whole notion of sex, lust, raw human desire . . . these rarely come up in the "indie-quirky" genre. Juno makes an offhand comment about how the one night of passion that led to her pregnancy was totally amazing, yet as directed by Jason Reitman, the sex scene itself is pure comedy, with zero erotic charge. And as played by Page, Juno comes off as someone too cool to get aroused by anything.

Then again, that kind of uncluttered, not-quite-adult world is partly why some people love these films. That and their moments of real beauty: like the scene in "Lars and the Real Girl" in which Lars lets someone else dance with his rubber girlfriend while he shuffles softly by himself, enraptured by the sound of Talking Heads' purest love song, "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)." Or, in "Juno," the scenes in which Juno and her future child's adoptive mother (nicely portrayed by Jennifer Garner) bond over their shared hope for the future.

The tricky game that these movies play is in trying to be at once sincere and self-consciously oddball, which is a mix that tends to raise a flag of caution among those who outgrew their "sensitive but defiant outsider" phase years ago. For these holdouts, there's always going to be something grating about the way Diablo Cody presents herself -- as on the "Juno" DVD featurettes, where the screenwriter sits for an interview with a set of headphones draped self-consciously around her neck.

No matter how funny, wise or heartwarming movies like "Juno" or "Lars" might be at times, they're like high-pitched whistles not everyone can hear.

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