After the surprising success of last year's "Little Miss Sunshine," other films were bound to promote themselves as this year's off-kilter indie charmer. Enter director Jason Reitman's "Juno," the story of an impeccably snarky, unapologetically pregnant 16-year-old. This movie seems to have it all. Like "Sunshine," it coats its creamy core of sentiment with a hard shell of irony. It has a great cast, and a justly praised performance by a very poised Ellen Page. Hip soundtrack? Most def. But it also has a script, by Diablo Cody, that ties itself in knots striving to be cool enough for the young folks. Every time a character comes out with another up-to-the-minute reference or expression ("Oh my blog!"), "Juno" feels more like Hollywood's desperate bid for the fickle attention of the YouTube generation.
As the inadvertently pregnant Juno MacGuff, Page shimmers with defiance at the forces that would subdue her, be they boys who give her dirty looks or parents who think they know what's best for her -- which, as it turns out here, they usually do. She may not really know much about life, but her speech bristles with arcane knowledge culled from the past half century of popular culture. (How many girls of 16 can pepper their conversation with offhand allusions to Soupy Sales?) Her taste runs to the castoff furnishings of the '70s, and thus ensconced in many concentric rings of irony, she is proof against the doubts that might make a real teenager quail. Girl power, thy name is Juno.
The father of the child is goodhearted nebbish Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera, trailing clouds of glory from his appearance earlier this year in "Superbad"). When Juno gives him the news, she dismisses his concern with a huff. It's a typical instance of the postfeminist moxie in which "Juno" is awash. Abortions? Those are for grandma. Juno decides to kick it old school and carry the baby to term, then deliver it, like a pizza, to a childless yuppie couple she finds in the PennySaver (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman).
As if to assure the audience that "Juno" will resemble television shows they already like, the movie begins with a cameo by Rainn Wilson, the nerdy Dwight of "The Office." Here he plays a prying pharmacist who, as Juno inspects the plus sign on her pregnancy test stick, utters the chastening words, "That's one doodle that can't be undid, home skillet." "Juno" consists not really of dialogue, but of zingers, an endless stream of them. When Juno's parents (the estimable Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons) learn that their daughter is in the family way, Mom immediately deadpans, "I was hoping she was expelled or on hard drugs." All that's missing is the laugh track. Characters are reduced to wisecrack delivery systems, and Juno's part itself resembles a mercilessly extended stand-up routine.
As the film moves into its second hour, clouds start to form over the simple plan Juno has concocted for dealing with her predicament. Life, which she's tried to keep at arm's length by sheer force of will, manages to suck her into its complications after all. It begins to dawn on her that people, herself not excluded, have feelings, feelings that even her snappy comebacks cannot dispel. When the prospective parents depart from the idealized roles in which she has cast them, some actual drama is set in motion, making the last half-hour of "Juno" much better than what precedes it. All in all, however, the preparation for the final act is a long springboard for a little dive.
Whatever its defects, "Juno" has managed to collect an impressive assortment of fans. Some religious groups are praising the protagonist's decision not to have an abortion. Hipsters, too, seem to be on board, along with the great majority of critics. If studios think they've found a formula for pleasing all these constituencies at once, "Juno" may give rise to a long line of progeny. You'll forgive me if I don't toast the blessed event. (PG-13) 91 min. S