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Toronto #10: Cinderella story with a twist

Diablo Cody wrote the script for “Juno,” perhaps the most popular film of the Toronto festival.

TORONTO, Ont.--It's the Cinderella story of this year's Toronto Film Festival. Girl is born in Chicago, grows up, graduates from college, moves to Minneapolis to join her boyfriend Jonny, who she met on the net. Works in advertising, finds it boring. Starts working as a stripper, doesn't find it boring. Changes her name to Diablo Cody. Starts a blog. Works as a phone sex voice. Writes book, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper. Quits the sex biz, marries Jonny, moves to suburbs. His daughter is their flower girl at wedding.

That's all boiled down from her bios at IMDb and Amazon. But now we get to the Cinderella part. I am hearing about it from Jason Reitman, the director of "Juno," which in my guess is the most popular film of the festival, and is written by Diablo Cody.

"She met this guy, he was supposed to be a producer, she wasn't sure, but he tells her she should write a screenplay," Reitman tells me. "It takes her two months. She sends it to Hollywood, where it goes all over town and everyone wants to make it. It is one of the best screenplays around."

Reitman, the son of famous director Ivan Reitman, was planning to direct his own screenplay for his second film, after the success of his 2005 written-and-directed "Thank You for Smoking." But he reads "Juno" and knows he must direct it.

His wonderful, funny movie, which I wrote about a few days ago, stars Ellen Page in an Oscar-caliber performance as an intelligent, sassy 16-year-old who gets pregnant. Her father and stepmother don't yell and scream at her but just want to help her out all they can. That, and many other elements of "Juno," are unlike most films about teenagers. Very unlike. I will write more about the movie and my full interview with the likable Jason Reitman when the movie opens around Christmas. Now back to the Cinderella story.

"Juno and her stepmother (Allison Janney) are very close," Reitman says. "That was Diablo's thinking. She thought stepmothers always got a raw deal in fiction. It was the Cinderella model of the stepmother as a witch. But now Diablo is a stepmother herself, and she and her stepdaughter really like each other."

Reitman says when he read her screenplay he thought, "She really nailed the New Nuclear Family. In the movies, families used to be mom, pop and the kids. In real life today, it's often more complicated. You have stepparents, half-brothers and sisters, children of single mothers, every kind of family. But she doesn't write about this in a political way, just in an honest light."

The heroine's family, in fact, us one of the most lovable families in recent films. Whatever Diablo Cody's background was, she wrote a positive, human, hilarious story. "Sometimes I just had to trust her," Reitman said. He gave the example of the scene where Juno tries to commit suicide by hanging herself with licorice rope. More I will not reveal. "I didn't understand it," Reitman admitted, "but I figured if I loved her screenplay and it was in there, she must have known what she was doing. It gets one of the biggest laughs in the movie."

And…Diablo Cody? That's what everyone calls her?

"Even her parents now," Reitman said.

* * *

Speaking of unconventional families and directors who are the children of other directors:

"Rails and Ties," by Alison Eastwood, Clint's daughter, is being well-received at the festival. It stars a childless couple (Marcia Gay Harden and Kevin Bacon). She's dying of cancer; we find out in the first scene, so that's not a spoiler. He's a train engineer, whose train slams into the car of a woman who overdosed on pills and parked on the tracks.

The woman's 11-year-old son (Miles Heizer), angry because the engineer "didn't even try to stop, tracks him down and confronts him. But it's more complicated. He's a runaway from a heartless foster home, the engineer and his wife grow to love him, and…more I should not reveal.

But the real sadness in the opening third of the movie is visceral and true. We look into the eyes of the woman and see bleak grief, and we look in the eyes of the man, who choses to drive a train on a day he should be with her, and see a man who lives his life by the book, which is no life at all. And then they are freed from their fixed positions by the lonely need of the boy. It’s a powerful setup, although I found the final shot less than satisfying. Yes, that’s what would happen. But more and more I question realism as a complete justification for events in movies. In some movies, yes, maybe a lot of movies; but sometimes what we need is a movie that doesn’t turn out like life.

* * *

Toronto closes Saturday night. The general opinion is, it was the best Toronto in years. If you see the films I loved, you're going to see some great films hat autumn. And I missed about 240 of the films in the festival, including a lot where people looked at me incredulously and said, "You didn't see that?"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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