We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 31 Aug 6:25PM
Comedy from director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody about a 16-year-old high school student contending with an unwanted pregnancy
Director Jason Reitman's debut feature Thank You For Smoking was a smart, if bleak, comedy, but in teaming up with producer Mason Novick and first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody, he has created a winning dynamic. Novick discovered, and got hooked on reading a blog written by Cody, an ex-stripper who had written a novel titled 'Candy Girl'. The original plan was for Cody to adapt the novel for the screen, but Novick suggested she write a sample screenplay to prove her ability. That script became Juno.
The resulting film is an inspired comedy, above even Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, thanks to the edgy freshness of Cody's voice. Juno is inventive and lively, mostly down to the characterisation and quick-fire dialogue, which moves easily from wry to touching, by way of sarcastic and bittersweet. Reitman directs with confidence and economic grace.
Juno is a 16-year-old eccentric tomboy, played by Ellen Page (Hard Candy). When she discovers she is pregnant from her one and only sexual experience, a chair-bound quickie with her sort-of boyfriend Paulie Bleeker (Cera, Superbad), her initial reaction is to terminate.
She phones a clinic, saying "I'm calling to procure a hasty abortion." Outside the clinic she runs into school friend Su-Chin (Tian), a lone anti-abortion protester ("All babies want to get borned! All babies want to get borned!"). It's not through any deep ideological struggle that Juno changes her mind - it's merely Su-Chin telling her the "thing" already has fingernails. So, urged by her best friend Leah (Thirlby), she comes clean to her dad, Mac (Simmons), and stepmother Bren (Janney). Their reactions? His: "Paulie Bleeker? I didn't know he had it in him." Hers: "I was hoping she was expelled or into hard drugs or something."
This is a deeply non-judgmental film. Like the similarly idiosyncratic Little Miss Sunshine it portrays ordinary - ordinarily eccentric - people dealing with difficult situations with humour, warmth and decency.
Looking in a 'Penny Saver' listings magazine, Leah and Juno find a couple to adopt the baby, and even these yuppies, Vanessa (Garner) and Mark Loring (Bateman), are not caricatured. Despite most of the focus on Juno, all other characters are well sketched out: Bleeker is calm and amiable, Mac is gruff but loving, Bren is surprisingly protective, Leah is Juno's "dude" sounding board, Vanessa is a woman struggling with a career but desperate to have a child, and Mark, whom Juno bonds with over rock and horror movies, is frustrated by life, by the expectations of being a man and having to leave behind his youthful aspirations.
It's a dream role for Page, who plays it to perfection. Juno is on occasion too obviously Cody's voice, the character is a bit relentless, a bit smart-arsed - but that is balanced by the low-key Paulie character.
These are minor criticisms of the consistently funny, human arc of the film, which is rich with great dialogue ("Can't we just kick this old school? I stick the baby in a basket and set it your way," suggests Juno on meeting Mark, Vanessa and their lawyer. To which Mark responds: "Well, technically, that would be Old Testament."), and funny scenes (Juno loves Dario Argento movies, but Mark wins her over to the virtues of Herschell Gordon Lewis by showing her Blood Feast. "Kudos. You have decent tastes in slasher movies.")
Beyond its obvious teen pregnancy theme and subtle love story, this film is about tolerance. The affectation of something like Napoleon Dynamite pales in comparison. The film has a direct satirical tone, but is never mean - in fact, it's deeply humane. Diablo Cody is a talent to watch.
In a nutshell: The sweetest, funniest film about an unplanned pregnancy you're likely to see.
By Daniel Etherington
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