The hardest thing for any writer to acquire is a distinctive voice and, for a screenwriter, that achievement can seem especially unachievable. For all the talk in Hollywood about nurturing fresh talent, the industry – and that's exactly what it is – almost always favors the machine-tooled over the personal. By the time the focus groups get done with you, it's a miracle if anything remotely spirited survives.
The specialness of the new comedy, "Juno," is that, against all odds, the filmmakers involved came up with something that looks and sounds like it was made by real live people and not by committee. I don't mean to suggest that a unique voice is, in itself, a guarantee of quality, or that a slick Hollywood product is, by definition, valueless. It's just that, particularly in the field of comedy, the mark of the individual counts for a lot. Certainly no great comedy can exist without it.
"Juno," the second feature directed by Jason Reitman ("Thank You For Smoking"), is far from great but it has qualities of feeling that lift it far above the ordinary. The screenplay by 29-year-old Diablo Cody, whose real name is Brook Busey-Hunt, is her first to be produced, and it has the tang of lived-in experience. (Cody, a publicist's dream, has been getting extra special media attention because she's a well-known blogger who spent a year as a stripper and wrote a memoir about it, "Candy Girl.")
Most comedies about high-schoolers, even the good ones, like "Superbad," feature geeky glandular cases. In a sense, this is also true of "Juno," except that this time around, the caricatures are far more nuanced.
Juno (Ellen Page) is an extremely precocious 16-year-old who gets pregnant by her best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). It's the first full-on sexual experience for both, and, upon confirming her status, Juno's first instinct is to get an abortion. Quickly, though, she decides against that, and, in a scene that is by turns hilarious and agonizing, she informs her father (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney) that she intends to put the baby up for adoption.
Her parents win the gold medal for being "understanding," but, privately, they are not without their qualms. After hearing the news, the mother laments, "I was hoping she was expelled or into hard drugs." The father agrees: "That was my first instinct, too. Or D.U.I. Anything but this."
In contrast to Juno's lower-middle-class background, the couple chosen to be the adoptive parents – they placed an ad in the "PennySaver" no less – are 30-something yuppies who live in a pricey spread an hour from town. Mark (Jason Bateman) is a would-be rock star who makes an excellent living writing commercial jingles; his wife Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) wants nothing more than to be a mother. At first, Juno's proposition is a blessing, but soon enough her presence, and the prospect of the baby, open up fissures in the marriage.
The performers in "Juno" are without exception excellent. (Cera, who was also wonderful in "Superbad," is particularly winning.) They have that added oomph that actors get when they know their lines are good. Page has to carry the entire movie on her pint-sized shoulders and she is eminently believable even when it's clear that no 16-year-old could be as wittily sarcastic as she.
As talented as she is, Cody relies too heavily on Juno's wisecracking. Juno is a mouthpiece for the screenwriter's zingers, which often arrive with the kind of clockwork timing that would make Neil Simon blush.
Another flaw is that the entire enterprise is engineered a bit too transparently to be heartwarming. There is nothing terribly painful or humiliating about Juno's high school experience as a visibly pregnant teenager; her parents are unwaveringly sympathetic; Paulie is OK with whatever Juno wants to do about the baby, and so on. It all culminates in a moral lesson from Dad: "In my opinion, the best thing you can do is to find a person who loves you for exactly what you are."
That's not a bad lesson to learn, but at its best, "Juno" is about the messy things in life that are not so easily summarized.
• PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, and language.