“I guess normalcy isn’t really our style,” Juno MacGuff declares in a voiceover at the conclusion of of Juno. After 90 minutes of quirk after quirk for quirk’s sake, the statement rings out like the sound of a power drill stripping a nail that’s already deeply, irrevocably embedded in the wall.
Indie-film-cum-box-office-juggernaut Juno debuted in theaters ten years ago today—right on the heels of Knocked Up and Waitress, two other films featuring frank, modern conversations about abortion, an evergreen hot-button issue that for some reason seemed evergreen-er than usual in 2007. If you were going to find an issue to hold against Juno at the time, it was most likely its treatment of unplanned teen pregnancy. This held true for both pro-life and pro-choice pundits: Depending on who you asked, the film was either “a far more costly blow against abortion rights than anything the anti-abortion crowd could possibly hope for or ever produce,” or “a movie sure to delight feminists” by making “fatherlessness acceptable in our society."
The debate about Juno’s moral compass and politics dominated the critical conversation at the time of its release, serving a worthwhile purpose but ultimately distracting from the film’s unwieldy DNA. Regardless of whether you relate more to Juno’s stepmother, who views the pregnancy as “a precious blessing from Jesus in [a] garbage dump of a situation,“ or the sardonic clerk who sells Juno a pregnancy test, who calls it “one doodle that can’t be undid, homeskillet,” you have to admit that that’s some terrible dialogue.
Juno’s most damning quality is trying too hard to appear charminlgly shambolic. It’s a slacker film that wears a drug rug to its cushy marketing job—the Steve Buscemi-in-a-“Music Band”-shirt-asking-“How do you do, fellow kids?” meme. It’s a film with a seemingly twee and homespun title sequence that actually took eight months and involved repeatedly running high-def photos “through a ‘bad Xerox machine’ ‘til they looked nearly hand-drawn,” according to director Jason Reitman. Juno is its protagonist’s iconic hamburger-shaped phone: cute and eye-catching, but as Juno herself says during an important call, “It’s like, really awkward to use.”
Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, the latter of whom won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Juno, went through painstaking steps to make Ellen Page’s title character and the world around her seem aggressively youthful and left of center. This comes through most glaringly in the dialogue, which throws together Myspace-era face-palms (“Honest to blog,” “Douche packer”), suburbanized hip-hop slang (“Forshizz up the spout,” “Tore up from the floor up,” “You’se a dick”), and corny Midwesternisms (“Go fly a kite,” “Damn skippy”) into the most irritating linguistic gumbo imaginable.
Then there are the lengths that Reitman and Cody went to prove just how hipstery and unique Juno is: She regularly brandishes a grandfatherly pipe without smoking it, constructs a lawn shrine to announce her pregnancy to Michael Cera’s Paulie Bleeker, and tells Jason Bateman’s considerably older character that he doesn’t understand punk because he wasn’t “there” in 1977. They could’ve picked any teenagerly activity for Juno to miss for her first ultrasound, but it had to be going to the movies to throw donut holes at the screen, because obviously Juno couldn’t possibly enjoy anything current and lamestream. In case you got halfway through the movie without noticing Juno’s unexplained penchant for quirkiness, here’s Bleeker’s mom, the “breakfast for supper”-foisting pinnacle of Midwestern normalcy, telling her son why she disapproves of Juno: “She’s just different.”
Reitman got the idea to prominently feature the music of twee, DIY indie singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson by asking Page what music she thought Juno would enjoy. As veteran critic Jim DeRogatis so elegantly put it in his review: “Here is a 29-year-old screenwriter (Cody) and a 30-year-old director (Reitman) brainstorming with a nearly 21-year-old actress (Page) and deciding that the intentionally primitive and infantile sounds recorded by a 35-year-old musician (Dawson) epitomize ‘the music that the kids today really listen to.’ This sort of contrivance hardly smacks of the honesty and humor the filmmakers brag about, and which many critics have hailed.”
The film’s marketing followed suit. Following the unprecedented success of the low-budget Little Miss Sunshine the year prior, Juno was part of a fresh class of Oscar hopefuls that critic Anthony Breznican wrote were "orchestrated to start off as word-of-mouth favorites among devoted moviegoers." Accordingly, Fox Searchlight sent select film critics hamburger phones as a promotional tactic. Everything paid off, as Juno became the company’s first film to gross more than $100 million, and snapped up the Oscar nominations its promo team had so savvily courted.
Clearly, there was something that actually resonated with audiences across the country. At its core, Juno is a sweet story about family and friends rallying around a precocious protagonist, and it probably started some valuable conversations about birth control. It also boasted some wonderful acting, especially from J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno’s supportive father and stepmother. They say you can’t polish a turd, but the wrong script and art direction can definitely convolute and muck up a perfectly good plot and cast.
Were it not for its precious score, zany one-liners, and cool-kid cachet, Juno might have slipped under the radar. Ten years down the line, the film seems better suited for a cult-favorite role than a manufactured-cult blockbuster one.