Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Popcorn Love: Olivia Thirlby in Juno (2008)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 3, 2008

Honest to blog

Watching it again on my trans-continental flight (did you know that planes have personalized on-demand movie options now? Technology, man), it occured to me that Oscar nominations, box office receipts and soundtrack sales aside, I still felt that Juno was a much better movie than it had any right to be. The first half-hour has some of the most cringe-worthy scenes of any Best Picture nominee since the last half-hour/hour/eternity of Return of the King–a misused Rainn Wilson ragging on a pregnant Juno, the now infamous “honest to blog” conversation, Juno using the phrase “pork swords,” and everything soundtracked by way, way too much Moldy Peaches. Yet the movie is still a winner, despite its leading lady’s continuing penchant for all things shocking!, and the relentless tweeness of the soundtrack.

And this, I concluded, is due to the film having one of the best casts of supporting characters recently assembled. No doubt, as Victor has pointed out in one of what feels like several Juno analyses, this is largely because all of the characters are so pronounced–there are zero straightpeople in Juno, and frankly, it’s something of a miracle it didn’t end up like a Heist-like mess of people Talking At Each Other. But it’s true that every character in the movie ended up being more interesting, more compelling, and for lack of a better word, better than I expected. J.K. Simmons seems like a typical hard-ass dad and Allison janney your typical evil stepmom, but both end up having reserves of wisdom and sensitivity that come through for Juno (both character and movie) in the clutch. Jason Bateman appears to be the cool, understanding adoptive parent and Jennifer Garner the creepy, unstable one, and by the end of the movie they’ve practically switched roles. Michael Cera plays Michael Cera, but that’s wonderful enough to somehow always be better than you’re expecting. Best of all though, is the cast’s one unknown, though that’s sure not to last too long–Olivia Thirlby, as Juno’s friend and sidekick Leah.

Unlike all the other characters in the movie, all of whom are both pivotal to the plot and have at least one scene of touching, meaningful emotional exchange with the girl of the hour, Leah just seems to be sort of along for the ride. She’s there at all the most meaningful events of the movie, seemingly, but reacts to all of them the way a stoner at home watching Juno on TV would. She’s relatively unmoved by Juno’s revelation of pregnancy (though, to be fair, Juno didn’t seem all that put out by it either), and casually discusses possibilities of abortion with her. She’s there when Juno comes clean to the ‘Rents, and she cackles throughout. She calls Juno out for being in love with Michael Cera, and then bitches about the PDA when they reconcile at the end. She’s even there for the delivery, speeding Juno through the hospital on her wheelchair, decidedly unimpressed with the gravity of the situation.

Frankly, it’s a sort of levity that the often heavy-handed (for a High School comedy, anwyay) Juno needs, and Thirlby pulls it off with aplomb. The fact that she’s ridiculously cute–cuter than Page and Cera even, which is fairly impressive–helps, especially with those knee-high socks, but really, she’s just the most refreshingly down-to-earth actress in the movie. Maybe it’s because she’s the only one in the movie yet to be bothered with the pressures of critical acclaim, box-office success, and starring on a beloved but soon-to-be-cancelled cult TV show, but Thirlby is by far the most down-to-earth, pretentionless actor in the movie. When Juno’s bitching to her about Bleeker asking Katerina de [Something] to Prom and how he told her that Katerina’s house smelled like soup, Thirlby instantly jumps in “Oh my God, it does! I was there like four years ago for her birthday party! It’s like Lipton landing!” It’s a throwaway line about a n ultimatley irrelevant character that we never even meet, but it might be the funniest line in the whole movie, just because Thirlby’s delivery, and the general exchange between two good friends, feels so natural.

Speaking of which, I can’t help but feel that Thirlby’s character represents some sort of important benchmark in the teen comedy, as it is possibly the first tim ethat a girl has ever played the character of The Friend. You know The Friend as the male character from most teen comedies–Curtis Armstrong in Risky Business, Sean William Scott in American Pie, Chris Marquette in The Girl Next Door–who doesn’t actually have much to do with the movie’s main plot, but shows up to add comic relief and to attempt to give the main character(s) a chance to talk to someone about their sexual crises and to give often unsolicited advice about such matters. The most revolutionary thing about Juno, I think, is to suggest that girls like Juno and Leah can talk about sex not only as frankly as the boys do, but with the same sort of casualness and enthusiasm (“What was it like jumping Bleeker’s boney bod?” Leah asks at one point). Usually in movies, girls having sex is a big deal, but in this one, it was just a means to an end, so Leah and Juno don’t have any big, emotional conversations about the topic–they just hit the high notes and go back to stealing lawn furniture and hanging out in trophy cases. And no one hangs out in trophy cases quite like Olivia Thirlby.

So, who wants to see The Wackness later this month? Standing offer.

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