When he was Juno's age, Jason Reitman remembers, "I was a loser. I was a movie geek, shy, I'd get dropped off at the movies, and go from theater to theater, all day. And I would actually buy tickets to every movie, not just one. Too shy to sneak in."
Juno is not shy. The heroine of the new movie, opening Friday, may be quicker and more intelligent than any other movie character this year. And in a funnier movie. She is played by Ellen Page, now 20, who will be nominated for best actress and has a good shot at winning. "Ellen is even brighter and more articulate than Juno is," Reitman said.
She is, in fact, a phenomenon, one of those young performers who emerge seemingly from nowhere to create a character we respond to in a way that reminds us of other great breakthrough performances, like Amy Adams in "Junebug." Page was amazing earlier in a movie titled "Hard Candy," but "Juno" puts her in another dimension altogether.
She plays a pregnant 16-year-old, sassy but vulnerable, who decides to keep the child and by the second act has us holding her hand. The whole movie is pitched at that level, including luminous performances by J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney as her huggable father and stepmother, Jennifer Garner as the woman who wants to adopt her baby, Jason Bateman as Garner's conflicted husband, and Michael Cera as Juno's boyfriend, who I guess might have reminded Reitman of himself at that age.
Reitman is a movie brat, the son of the director Ivan Reitman ("Ghostbusters," "Dave," producer of "Animal House"). Just barely 30, he emerged in full flight in his first feature, the pitch-perfect satire "Thank You for Smoking" (2005), and with only two films has moved onto the A list.
"In a weird sense I've been in the movie business since I was a baby," he said. This was in Toronto a few days after the film's triumphant premiere at the film festival. "I was on the set of 'Animal House' when I was a baby. I spent summers in the editing room, watching how films come together. I was very fortunate. I made a lot of shorts and commercials in my 20s, and I was offered a lot of movies, but my career would have gone in the wrong direction. 'Dude, Where's My Car?' was offered to me twice. It was a sexy idea, being a professional director, but I didn't do it. Making that decision time and time again, I got the career I have now."
Reitman said he and his wife Michelle Lee had just had a baby and then started the movie. That was one reason he identified so strongly with the original screenplay by Diablo Cody, who is about to pull off the biggest career leap of the movie season, from stripper to Oscar nominee. Her story has become part of the film's growing legend, and Reitman values her as an instinctive filmmaker.
"She wrote the key scene in the movie overnight," he said. "I told her we needed something to actually show Juno deciding that she'll give her baby to Vanessa [Jennifer Garner]. She came up with the scene in the mall where Vanessa touches Juno's stomach and feels the baby kick, and talks to the baby in the womb.
"It was the last scene Jennifer had in the film. She'd been working 24 hours straight. It's one long shot, of Juno seeing her in the mall, and a long closeup, which I held for a full minute. She goes from feeling embarrassed to her face just glowing, and Juno seeing that. That was the scene where our ideas about Vanessa turn on a dime."
Audiences love Juno's parents in the movie, who are a little older and a lot wiser than parents of movie teenagers are usually allowed to be. Don't be surprised by supporting nominations.
"J.K. Simmons has been around a long time," Reitman said, "but he's usually the guy who says, 'Mr. President, the missiles are in the air.' He's actually a teddy bear of a man. And Allison Janney, she's one of Mike Nichols' favorites, she has that warmth with perfect comic timing. She gets the biggest laugh in the film, when Juno can't get a pain-killer during childbirth and she says, 'Juno, honey, it's because doctors are sadists and like to watch lesser people scream.'"
"Our biggest job," he said, "was to find actors who could say Diablo Cody's great dialogue. That's not her real name, of course. She chose it when she started a blog and wrote a book about her experiences as a stripper. Now even her parents call her Diablo. She is a stepmother herself, and her thinking was that stepmothers always get a raw deal. It's the Cinderella model.
"I grew up in a wonderful family; my mom and dad have been together for 30 years. Some people are surprised by how well Juno's parents react to the news of her pregnancy, and that was a shock to me. I think your parental instincts should just kick in, and you want to help your daughter."
Reitman said that in a way, "Juno" all comes down to Ellen Page's performance. "It's exciting when an actor breaks out in a movie. She is the real deal. Fearless. She will go on to become one of the greatest actors of her generation."