By Chris Willman
Updated August 04, 2020 at 11:27 AM EDT
Nicole Kidman, Margot at the Wedding
Credit: Ken Regan/Camera 5

“Who’s ready to laugh?” asked director Jason (Thank You for Smoking) Reitman, introducing the world premiere of his new film, Juno, in Telluride. “I know it’s been a laugh-filled festival.” Indeed it had. I had just come from a screening of a brutal Russian film called Cargo 200, in which a young woman is held hostage and raped by a corrupt general while the corpse of her fiancé lies rotting in bed right next to her. How could a mere American teen comedy like Juno hope to top that for laughs?

Arriving late in a movie confab like this, after days of standard film-fest death-and-degradation fare, a blithe-spirited confection like Juno has some odds in its favor when it comes to becoming a festival’s runaway popular hit. But Reitman’s movie earned that unscientific honor here largely on merit, not just its unfair comedic advantage. Even coming down the mountain into the less mirth-deprived or oxygen-deficient environment of the multiplex later this year, Juno is still going to play like gangbusters. Fox Searchlight certainly thinks so. They recently made the decision to start rolling Reitman’s film out on December 14 — which, as screenwriter Diablo Cody (pictured at left, with Reitman) says on her blog, “is not a messin’-around release date. It’s kind of a scary release date. It’s a we-believe-in-you release date. I believe in me, but I also believe in Crystal Light, so it seems my trust is easily won.” (We’ll come back to the scarily funny Cody and her personal issues in a moment.)

The studio’s optimistic judgment call on that release date may not represent a sure Oscar-bait belief so much as an “everybody in the family over 15 will have a good time and gohome hating each other less at Christmastime” kind of thing. On the teen appeal front, there’s Superbad‘s own supersensitive Michael Cera, presciently cast as the nominal male lead to the film’s obvious breakout star, Ellen Page (X-Men 3; Hard Candy), who plays a 16-year-old who gets knocked up by Cera, then — after an interlude at an abortion clinic — decides to deliver the baby to an adoptive family. The would-be adopters are Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, and it’s their seemingly uptight yuppie couple who provide plot turns that make the movie both far more surprising and ultimately much warmer than the self-impressed high school jargonfest the opening reels might set you up to expect.

Juno has one other major find besides Page, and that would be Cody, whose offscreen banter at a series of Q&As over the last two days was as funny as anything she’d scripted. (Introducing the film at the Nugget Theatre, one of the festival’s smaller venues, she enthused over the small size and good vibe of the room, describing it as “K-Y intimate.”) This is her first script, though she previously published a memoir called Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, which got her on Letterman last year, where her book became the first and still only member of the official Dave Book Club. (You can see the clip here.) It’s hard to imagine she won’t achieve notoriety as a performer of some kind or another — and I don’t mean stripper — on top of becoming one of Hollywood’s top go-to young writers. At first, the script’s fast and droll torrents of funny throwaway lines threaten to make Page — who’s really 21, but doesn’t seem a day over her supposed 16 — come off a little too much like a pee-wee Sarah Silverman. But Cody can do warmth as well as wiseacre, it’s eventually revealed, and Reitman is well on his game, significantly improving on the hardly unappreciated Thank You for Smoking.

addCredit(“Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody: Chris Willman; Margot at the Wedding: Ken Regan/Camera 5”)

The comedy — or dramedy — that had the most anticipation coming into Telluride was Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, but there was no such widespread consensus that the filmmaker had improved on The Squid and the Whale(my favorite film of the last few years). It’s a mostly cleverlywritten ensemble piece that plays out with the fast-paced delivery of ascrewball comedy. But the emphasis is on screwball, as pretty muchevery person who’s gathered in the Hamptons for the titular wedding —including loosey-goosey would-be bride Jennifer Jason Leigh, heruptight sister, Nicole Kidman (pictured), and her slacker fiancé, Jack Black(brought in for broader comic relief and, yes, nude scenes) — is aseriously toxic personality in need of decades more therapy andantidepressants than they’ve already had. The scenes in which severelyneurotic parents treat their children as pals, confidantes, and evenemotional punching bags instead of kids are potent, but that ground wascovered with more focus in Squid. And with so little emotionalstability to be found anywhere in the movie (except for a cameo by JohnTurturro as Kidman’s shockingly grounded but estranged husband), andnot much resolution to the start-to-finish tension between theemotionally frayed sisters, I wonder whether the laughs and insightthat do pepper the film will keep even some Baumbach fans from wantingto take a pill and a pass.

Among the films we haven’t gotten to that received widespreadaudience support were several deserving Cannes hits. These includeJulian Schnabel’s excellent The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, one of the first mainstream films since the 1947 Raymond Chandler adaptation The Lady in the Lake to be shot primarily from the protagonist’s literal point of view. The Palme d’Or winner, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,also had its stateside premiere here, providing some of the moreunnerving moments of the festival with its portrayal of the leadup toand nervous aftermath of an illegal abortion in Romania. Strangely andcredibly enough, it’s a film you can imagine both anti-abortion andpro-abortion-rights supporters being willing to claim as their own, forvery different reasons. But it plays out almost more like a suspensefilm than a social-issues film, with dread mounting both before andafter the deed, in a series of monumentally well-achieved 10-minutetakes.

Somehow Telluride manages to be both the most laid-back and mosthectic of festivals — you only have four days to see as many films aspossible, but the setting, in what is arguably the country’s mostbeautiful inhabited valley, has a narcotic effect that prohibits stresseven when you get turned away from the must-see of the weekend. And thelack of a competition or market at Telluride, along with its compact,one-weekend time frame, ensures a wildly disproportionate and favorableratio of hits to misses. Telluride picks the best from what has alreadyplayed at Cannes and what is about to “premiere” in Venice or Toronto,adds a few of its own world premieres and some historical programming,and doesn’t waste many of its limited slots on iffy indiefirst-timers. In almost two decades of attending, I’ve seen probablyabout 200 films, and can count the truly bad ones on two hands. (One ofthose, unfortunately, was this year, but we will speak of the DePalmadebacle no more.) Full disclosure dictates that we mention EW has beena sponsor for the last three years now. But it’s not just thesponsorship or the 9,000-foot altitude talking when we say that, forfilm buffs, Telluride is about as close to heaven on earth as you canget once a year. And it’d earn that unscientific honor on merit, evenwithout the height advantage.