Juno (Fox Searchlight) is Knocked Up from the girl's point of view—a funny, off-kilter salute to unplanned parenthood in the MySpace generation. Let's hope that the teenage girls of America don't cast their condoms to the wind in hopes of becoming as cool as 16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), who finds herself up the pole after a single, seconds-long sexual encounter with her friend and bandmate Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). Juno is a wildly appealing heroine, a bright, tart-tongued girl with a self-possession beyond her years. But what saves her—and the movie—from foundering in a sea of snark is Juno's slow realization that brains, wit, and good taste in music aren't enough to get her through an experience as lifeshaking as pregnancy.
Directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking), with a script by the much-promoted blogger-turned-stripper-turned-memoirist Diablo Cody, Juno performs a kind of stealth attack on the viewer. For the first half-hour, everyone is way too prepared with the clever quip. Not just the deadpan Juno, but the wisecracking convenience-store clerk (Rainn Wilson) who sells her a pregnancy test with the query, "What's the prognosis, Fertile Myrtle?" and the text-messaging Goth chick behind the counter at the abortion clinic, who hands Juno a questionnaire with the admonition, "We need to know about every score and every sore." (Are the youth of today really that into rhyme?) Juno flees the clinic for reasons that aren't clear even to her: "They had these horrible water-stained magazines," she tells her best friend, Lea (Olivia Thirlby). But just when you're ready to write off the movie as an airless quirkfest, it unfurls a beautifully written scene in which Juno promises her baby to a childless couple she finds through a classified ad.
At first, Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) seem like targets for easy satire: They're brittle yuppies with monogrammed towels who live in a cookie-cutter development called Glacial Valley Estates. But as Juno's pregnancy advances and she gets closer to the Lorings, they emerge as real people. Mark, a writer of commercial jingles, still clings to his adolescent dreams of rock stardom, while behind Vanessa's prissy exterior is an untapped reservoir of real maternal warmth. Juno's initial cavalier plan to "squeeze the baby on out and hand it over" is complicated not only by the Lorings' fragile marriage but also by her naive near-flirtation with Mark, with whom she bonds over punk rock and horror movies.
All the supporting players, especially J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno's parents, are terrific, even if their dialogue sometimes seems drawn from the same endless well of snappy one-liners. Michael Cera, as Juno's track-running, guitar-strumming nerd of a semiboyfriend, turns in another of his signature performances: low-key but quietly hilarious. This will be the movie that turns Cera into the alternative girl's heartthrob. "You're the coolest person I've ever met, and you don't even have to try," Juno tells Cera's character, Paulie, in one affecting scene. "Actually," he confesses in return, "I try really hard." So does Diablo Cody's script, but like Paulie, it's sweet-spirited enough to get away with it most of the time.
With a charismatic lead performance from Page and a plaintive score of indie-rock songs, many of them by Kimya Dawson of the Moldy Peaches, Juno seems poised to be the season's youth-culture hit. I wouldn't be surprised if it even created a minifad for the heroine's unusual name, which, she explains, came from her father's obsession with the Roman goddess who was "really beautiful and really mean, like Diana Ross." I just hope all the mothers who name their daughters Juno in 2008 will have earned their high-school diplomas.