What do the words "independent film" mean to you? It seems to me that the term has become increasingly irrelevant. Over the past few years, a number of films which have been hailed as independent marvels have in fact been produced under the specialty arms of the major studios; they have been full of recognisable actors and actresses, and – in the most worrying trend of all – they have tended to display just enough edge to make them stand out from the mainstream crowd, while still being homogenous and conventional enough to appeal to a mass market. This has resulted in a very definitive "Indie" look and feel. These are films in which characters are defined by their quirks and affectations, in which the setting is a weird parallel universe where the production and costume design is incongruous and colourful, in which the humour is self-consciously hip, and it all glides along merrily to a cutesy soundtrack. When I think of independent filmmakers I think of Lodge Kerrigan, Andrew Bujalski or John Cameron Mitchell – directors determinedly bringing their own distinctive vision to the screen for nobody to see – but these "Indie" pictures have grown into an irritating genre all by themselves.
All of which goes some way to explaining why I spent much of Juno's first hour hating a film I had really wanted to love. Jason Reitman's picture arrives here on a tidal wave of exultant reviews and its writer – ex-stripper Diablo Cody – is pretty much a lock for this year's Best Original Screenplay Oscar. It's this year's Little Miss Sunshine in more ways than one; for not only is it the latest slick indie comedy to find a wide audience, it's also another hollow shell of quirkiness which is only partially redeemed by an exceptional cast.
Oddly, Juno is the third film in the past year to base its comedy around an unplanned pregnancy. The title character Juno McGuff (Ellen Page) is a 16-year-old who has fallen pregnant after impetuously seducing her best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera, brilliantly deadpan as in Superbad). She recalls this incident while swigging from a huge carton of Sunny Delight, and then she takes a third pregnancy test which confirms her worst fears. Standing behind the counter at her local convenience store is Rainn Wilson, who only has a couple of lines in this movie but who has been saddled with some of the worst dialogue imaginable. "Your eggo's preggo" he tells Juno with some glee, and he follows up that winner with "That ain't no etch-a-sketch. This is one doodle that can't be un-did, homeskillet". I'm tempted to cite Harrison Ford's famous "You can type this shit, George, but you sure can't say it" line in response, but I'm not even sure how dialogue such as that could have looked good on the page (I don't know what a homeskillet is anyway).
Nevertheless, that's the kind of dialogue that keeps popping up in Juno. The opening half-hour is hellish, with every character responding to some snarky one-liner with an acerbic retort of their own, and Juno herself is the worst offender. The biggest problem I had with the film is that this girl – this character I'm expected to empathise with – is insufferable. She's an obnoxious little know-it-all who responds to every situation with the same flippant sarcasm, and if you're not on board with this brand of self-aware humour then the ceaseless scenes in which she insults people or throws out another obscure pop culture reference can feel interminable. I can see what Cody is trying to do here, painting the character as a fundamentally insecure and immature girl who masks her feelings with this outer shell of cocky bravado, but Juno is so painfully overwritten the characters never feel real; they're only vessels for Cody's unconvincingly snappy banter. Ellen Page is a terrific young actress who does a marvellous job here of suggesting some degree of depth in this role, but I found her character's attitude alienating rather than endearing.
That Juno remains at all tolerable is mainly down to Page and the rest of the well-chosen cast who do plenty of heavy lifting to make their characterisations work. JK Simmons and Alison Janney have a pleasing directness which enables them to cut through the movie's phoniness to connect with something real, and both of them handle their big individual speeches in a classy fashion (even if Janney's put-down of an ultrasound technician feels resoundingly fake). Juno is perhaps most interesting when it focuses on the dynamic between the lead character and the couple she has selected to adopt her unborn child – would-be rocker Jason Bateman and his uptight, panicky wife Jennifer Garner, both of whom give fine performances. Reitman clearly has a sure hand with actors – he showed as much in his well-acted but lame 2005 satire Thank You for Smoking – and Juno improves immeasurably in the second half, when the film gives this excellent cast some breathing space, focusing more on the emotions of the situation than simply acting as a sounding board for Cody's torturous gags. Surprisingly, I even found some of its later scenes quite touching, proving that there is a story worth caring about buried in here somewhere.
But when I think about Juno in retrospect, it's the things I hated that linger for me. The way it featured characters who only exist in films like this (like the geeky Asian protestor outside the abortion clinic and – even worse! – the slutty receptionist inside); or the way individual quirks are rationed out among the characters, like Cera's obsession with Orange Tic-Tacs or Janney's obsession with dogs (both traits which, naturally, have a payoff at the end); or the repetitive visual gags, like the athletes constantly jogging in the background; or the awful soundtrack selection. Juno is a film which seems to encapsulate so many of the flaws apparent in Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, I ♥ Huckabees and all of the other films of this type; and, once again, my less-than-positive response to it leaves me in the small minority. Everyone seems to love Juno, but the high praise for it, and in particular the high praise for Diablo Cody's precious, self-satisfied script, has left me completely baffled. This is nothing like a great screenplay, it's merely an attention-grabbing screenplay – and that Oscar's in the bag.