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Melodrama in Distress

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In the credit sequence of the teen-pregnancy comedy Juno, the title heroine (Ellen Page) strides with magnetic confidence through the streets of suburbia, and her trek metamorphoses into a wiggly, elating cartoon, with a girl-group pop song to reinforce the notion that headstrong Juno is her own universe. So far, so infectious, but in the next scene she goes to buy a pregnancy test from a snarky pharmacist and bizarrely blurts out everything she’s doing; she comes out of the bathroom and rants about the little plus sign. I know Juno is not supposed to care what other people think of her. I know she’s a poster girl (or will be) for the Facebook Generation—the one with zero sphere of privacy. But I could never go with her manic exhibitionism in the drugstore. She’s a screwball heroine, but it’s the writer, Diablo Cody, and the director, Jason Reitman, who have screws loose.

Or maybe they’re just desperate to make their film a chick Rushmore or Garden State—a movie that confers hipness on teens, that makes kids want to use the same slang and snap up the soundtrack and buy the vintage Japanese comics and rent the hack-’em-up DVDs it references. The filmmakers even lucked into the male lead (Michael Cera) of Superbad, only here he’s a whiny cipher. The relentlessly jokey banter of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is taken to a screechy new level. Every character’s wisecracks come from the same place, like in bad Neil Simon. In one memorably grisly scene, the pierced receptionist at an abortion clinic robotically goes through her supposedly empathetic spiel and then holds forth on the aroma of her boyfriend’s penis. It’s meant to be shocking, and it is—but only because you don’t think the filmmakers will stoop that low. No, they stoop lower: The jokes disappear for the end of each segment, when you’re supposed to shed a little tear.

Young Reitman was mysteriously acclaimed for his ugly, inept film of the libertarian hipster comedy Thank You for Not Smoking, but that movie didn’t break out the way Juno will. It’s the Knocked Up—the family-values picture with four-letter words—that the tweeners will want to see. Its biggest hook is Page, a young Canadian actress who played Red Riding Hood as an avenging vigilante torturer in the horror-psychodrama Hard Candy. In that one, you never knew when her character was playacting and when she was supposed to be genuinely distraught—she was a feminist construct. But Page blurred the line in a way that kept you watching her. She has a talent for making her motormouthed lines sound like they’re really coming from her head. Here, her mixture of flamboyant self-possession and vulnerability could turn her into a new role model. Prepare yourself for the Juno generation.

The best antidote to Juno is Billy the Kid, a heartbreaking vérité documentary by Jennifer Venditti about a misfit Maine teenager—a film that makes you think about (and question) what fitting in really entails. Billy tries. He doesn’t naturally make eye contact (he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome after the movie was finished), but he talks—and talks—even when he doesn’t know how to gauge the responses of the people he’s talking to. He’s wildly enthusiastic about horror movies and books about serial killers, which one hopes are safe outlets for his aggression rather than designs for living. (He’s also pretty good at karate and electric guitar.) He solemnly informs the director that he doesn’t kill the women in video games and dreams about one day saving a damsel in distress.

Billy finds one in the movie named Heather, a waitress who’s partially blind and slightly overweight. “Just like her, I myself have a little condition,” he says to the camera. The girl is monosyllabic, so he chatters away about An American Werewolf in London and anything else that comes into his mind (“I hate buses, their shock absorbers aren’t very comfortable”) and falls head over heels, and we know—we know—that he’s setting himself up for something terrible. Watching him try to orient himself in a world that makes no sense makes you wonder how any of us ever did.

Atonement
Directed by Joe Wright. Focus Features. R.

Juno
Directed by Jason Reitman. Fox Searchlight. PG-13.

Billy the Kid
Directed by Jennifer Venditti. Elephant Eye Films. Not rated.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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