'Juno' grows and grows

Robert W. Butler
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)


Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons
Distributor: Fox
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Fox Searchlight
First date: 2007
UK Release Date: 2008-02-01 (General release)
US Release Date: 2007-12-05 (Limited release)

For a low-budget movie with no major names in its cast, "Juno" has become a force to be reckoned with.

Last weekend the indie comedy about a pregnant teen took third place at the box office ($13.6 million), right behind the star-heavy entries "The Bucket List" with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson ($19.4 million) and "First Sunday' with Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan ($ 17.7 million).

What made "Juno's" numbers remarkable was that the movie had been around for three weeks, while "Bucket" and "Sunday" had just opened.

Another interesting fact: For the last couple of weeks "Juno" has sold more tickets on Mondays and Tuesdays than any other movie. The weekends may belong to new titles, but weekdays belong to "Juno."

Small wonder the flick has topped $70 million in ticket sales.

Here's another thing that makes the film special: It has been embraced by Middle America.

Usually a film like "Juno" would find its strongest advocates in big cities where, common wisdom assumes, moviegoers are more adventurous, sophisticated and, well, smarter.

But according to box-office figures, the film is playing to big crowds in small- to middle-sized towns in Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota. Two weekends ago it jumped from 600 screens to 2,500.

A lot of critically acclaimed art/indie movies never make a dent in the Midwestern box office. "Sideways" couldn't. In fact, for all its buzz, that bleak 2004 comedy about a wine snob never even played in most small-town theaters. The recent "Lars and the Real Girl," a comedy about a young man in love with a sex doll that made many Top 10 lists, has yet to break $6 million at the box office.

So why "Juno"? Here are some thoughts:

The film approximates a teen movie without really being a teen movie. It presents situations recognizable to any high school student, but the emphasis is much wider. The adult characters - Juno's parents and the couple to whom she is planning to give her baby - are every bit as well-rounded and essential to the film as the kids.

This gives the movie universal appeal.

"Juno" approaches the hot-button issue of teen pregnancy so deftly that it appeals to both sides of the abortion debate.

Yes, it's a story about a girl who decides to go through with her pregnancy. But Juno doesn't get on a high horse about it. The movie makes clear that many of her classmates have had abortions, and our heroine doesn't condemn them. This decision is hers and hers alone.

The film is consistently clever without ever stooping to crassness.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody's dialogue is so inventive that it's not until the film is over that you realize it's one of the "cleanest" movies around. The film's general lack of profanity may not accurately reflect contemporary teenage life, but it has made "Juno" palatable to audiences who really, really dislike offensive language.

It has been reported that the MPAA ratings board asked the filmmakers to change three lines of dialogue to qualify "Juno" for a PG-13. In the conservative Midwest, an R rating often proves a commercial albatross. So by trimming those lines the moviemakers boosted their business by as much as $20 million, according to some estimates.

The film is funny without being mean. Comedy often entails making fun of someone, but "Juno" somehow allows us to identify with all the characters. There's no us-vs.-them here, just a very funny and unexpectedly sweet movie about people struggling through.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

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