And Juno, directed by Jason Reitman, is simply too good a movie to be watched on anything other than its own terms. Fierce without being cruel, sweet without becoming saccharine, and never short of hilarious, it's not only the best comedy of the year, but one of the best films, period.
The title character (played by Ellen Page) is a sharp, sardonic high-school junior who, after a somewhat offhand carnal encounter with her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Her girlfriend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) suggests it may be a false alarm--"It's probably just a food baby. Did you have a big lunch?"--but a series of over-the-counter pregnancy tests confirms the fetal reality.
Juno's initial thoughts turn to abortion, but a visit to a clinic where the receptionist asks her to catalogue "every score and every sore" soon has her checking ads in the Pennysaver for couples seeking to adopt. And so, with the support of her dad (J. K. Simmons) and stepmom (Allison Janney), she tracks down a well-off suburban couple, the Lorings, eager for her baby.
Seasons change, and so does the size of Juno's belly. She gets to know the Lorings better: sweet but maternally desperate Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and--especially--wry, boyish Mark (Jason Bateman). Mark is a former would-be rock musician-turned-composer of what he describes as "more commercial stuff"--"Like what?" Juno asks. "Commercials," he explains--and Juno takes to hanging out with him while his wife is away at work, bonding over her precocious appreciation of Iggy Pop and Dario Argento.
Just as the story appears to be headed toward a distasteful liaison, though, it veers in a more humane direction, one that allows for irresponsibility and disappointment without venturing into Social Services territory. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of Juno is that it is able to distinguish between a bad situation (being 16 years old and pregnant) and truly unhappy circumstances: Juno's parents are disappointed but not disapproving; the Lorings, while not quite as they first appear, never slip into callous caricature; and Paulie Bleeker is everything, I imagine, you would want in the teenage father of your unintended child. Juno herself, moreover, wastes no time on self-pity: Even her moment of greatest despair is an unselfish one, occasioned not by her own predicament but by the worry that it may be impossible for any two people to beat the odds and remain in love.
This generosity of spirit is Juno's most pleasant surprise. Early on, the film seems as though it may amount to little more than a series of ironic jibes, especially during the somewhat off-key scene in which a drug-store cashier (Rainn Wilson of The Office) sells Juno a series of dubious quips ("fertile Myrtle," "your Eggo is preggo") along with her pregnancy tests. But it soon settles into a rhythm in which even the sharpest jokes--say, Paulie applying Speed Stick to his inner thighs in preparation for a jog while the Kinks' "A Well-Respected Man" plays in the background--are pitched in an endearing key.
The obvious comparison is with Judd Apatow's recent oeuvre, and plenty of people are already describing the movie as Knocked Up from a girl's perspective. But even though Juno's accidental parents are about a decade younger than Apatow's, a better description might be Knocked Up from an adult perspective. Juno recognizes that some overgrown boys never really do make their peace with maturity, and may, in fact, actively choose to go the other way. There are no convenient shifts of character or improbable attractions required to reach its happy ending: It's all right there from the beginning, waiting to unfold.
Given the performers involved, it's hardly a surprise that the cast is uniformly terrific. Simmons and Janney deliver their customary excellence as Juno's parents, with the latter given the opportunity to display a little protective ferocity on her stepdaughter's behalf. Bateman is effortlessly persuasive as the perhaps-a-little-too-hip adoptive dad, and Garner does an exceptional job of humanizing the at-first inhumanly rigid would-be mom. Michael Cera continues to get more mileage out of a pause or awkward glance than any other actor of his, or perhaps any, generation. (But take note, fellow Arrested Development fanatics: He and Bateman don't share any scenes.) And Page, who starred in Hard Candy before this, is a true find--smart, poised, in control of every scene without ever dominating one. Director Reitman demonstrates again (as he did with the underrated Thank You for Smoking) that the surest way to dispel any thoughts of nepotism (his father is Ivan) is to firmly establish your own excellence. As for Diablo Cody, her script is a gem. Come to whatever conclusions you wish about her vivid persona--but see the movie first.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.