There’s a lesson I’ve learned over the years from my movie viewing. Basically, the lesson is to keep my expectations for a film’s quality in a healthy check because otherwise, I am going to be nearly guaranteed to be disappointed by said over-hyped film. 2007’s coming of age, teen pregnancy comedy Juno is the movie that basically solidified that principle for me. When I first saw it upon its release, I had heard nothing but glowing reviews from friends and critics and so I expected to be bowled over by the film because of this. I was incredibly disappointed, not because I disliked the film but because it was not nearly as good as the film I imagined it to be. Because of this, I practically refused to watch it again for years. In my film studies class, this was the first movie we watched (which was a couple of weeks ago and I’m only now getting around to reviewing it), and during this session, I kept my expectations in check and while it wasn’t nearly as disappointing on a second watch (and I enjoyed it more this time), it’s still a deeply flawed movie that has the potential for greatness but falls short of that lofty goal because of an overly self-aware level of quirkiness that pushes heavily into pretentious territory.

Juno is the story of a year in the life of the titular teenage main character. Juno MacGuff (Hard Candy‘s Ellen Page) is a quirky and assertive 16 year old who discovers that she is pregnant after having sex with her best friend (but not boyfriend) Paulie Bleeker (Arrested Development‘s Michael Cera). After initially deciding to abort the fetus, Juno decides to see the pregnancy to term and then give her child up for adoption. The role of adoptive parents is quickly filled by a wealthy married couple who at first seem like the very definition of yuppies. The husband (Arrested Development‘s Jason Bateman) is a former grunge rock wannabe who has sold out and started writing commercial jingles. The wife (Alias‘s Jennifer Garner) is a controlling, obsessive compulsive who feels her destiny is to be a mother. As Juno’s pregnancy nears its end, Juno finds herself more and more involved in the lives of her child’s future family and learns that beneath their veneer of perfection is a family as flawed as her own.

Let’s start with the positives. Ellen Page is a natural and under-utilized talent. While I will always think of her as the androgynous waif of Hard Candy where terrifying only begins to scratch the surface of the nuance of her performances, Juno is the role for which she was nominated for an Oscar, and it was with good reason. She brings the sort of feisty intensity that I expect from a Zooey Deschanel heroine while simultaneously lending Juno the level of vulnerability that you would expect from any high school girl in that situation. Michael Cera plays the exact type of character he’s made a career playing so while he does it well, it’s nothing new for him. I don’t think Jason Bateman gets the level of respect he deserves for playing the husband. Mark is the spouse we have to initially sympathize with through his friendship with Juno and Jason Bateman masterfully transforms him into a possible creep who needs to grow up. It’s a testament to Diablo Cody’s writing that I can actually care for Jennifer Garner’s character in the end who initially seems like a one-note condemnatino of Yuppie culture.

Here’s my major problem with the film. For the first half (it mysteriously disappears in the last parts of the film), the movie is weighed down by dialogue that is incredibly frustrating in its inauthenticity. There is a difference between quirky and idiosyncratic dialogue like Quentin Tarantino’s work or Joss Whedon and dialogue that is simply unrealistic. Juno‘s diloague falls on the unrealistic side of the equation. I was roughly Juno’s age when the movie came out. My friends ran the gamut of social types and vocabularies. No one talks like her character. Her verbiage seems so forced and unnatural that it consistently took me out of the film itself as I would try to parse it for any real world analogues which simply didn’t exist. Ellen Page did a great job of making these lines sound like something Juno would say but I couldn’t help but get irritated every time someone would spout out some previously unheard of phrase. The film was all too aware of how quirky it was trying to be, and rather than feeling natural like in Garden State or (500) Days of Summer, it just felt forced. If you have to force quirkiness, then you are entering pretentious territory.

I applaud the film for its incredibly powerful feminist message. Not since I watched Tess or Repulsion have I watched a film that so thoroughly captures one aspect of the modern female psyche. The film is ultimately a celebration of strong-willed, and independent minded women and it gives great role models for women to choose from. Yeah, Juno is a single-mother but she never allows herself to be defined by her situation. At all times, she stays in control and takes an active role in shaping her destiny. Hell, even in defiance of most situations with teenage pregnancies, she was the one to initiate the sex with Paulie because she was bored. Even Vanessa who is supposed to be the unlikeable yuppie in her household turns out to be the more mature and level-headed member of the Loring family. At times, I almost felt like the film was verging on an anti-man message, but it was mostly able to avoid that kind of soapboxing except when it come to Jason Bateman’s Mark.

On my second watch, I actually enjoyed the film. It’s last half is legitimately powerful and engaging film-making that makes the beginning of the film seem so artificial and trite in comparison. I still don’t believe the movie deserves all of the hype that has surrounded it over the years but if you haven’t watched it yet, you should definitely check it out. Juno has received a lot of the blame for sparking the teen pregnancy craze that has swept the nation over the last couple of years, but I think that’s an unfair generalization. Juno presents a genuine tale (if occasionally wrapped in not genuine dialogue and quirkiness) of female empowerment and coming of age that was a fresh departure from the teen pregnancy tales of the past. It might not be a modern classic but it was a legitimately entertaining film that if you manage to keep your expectations at a realistic level, then you should have no problem enjoying this heart-warming tale.

Final Score: B+