Inside the surprise hit Juno
Editor’s note: This story was written prior to Elliot Page’s announcement that he is transgender.
She comes shuffling through the dining room of the Four Seasons Hotel wearing jeans and magenta high-tops. With her hands thrust deep into her front pockets and her brow tilted toward the floor, Ellen Page looks like a kid who has wandered into enemy territory in the high school cafeteria. She sits, and at one point pulls her hoodie up over her head and tightens the strings, hiding all but her eyes, nose, and mouth. It’s about as close as a human can come to disappearing in plain sight. ”This is all definitely surreal,” she says.
Hoodie or no, it’s impossible to miss the 20-year-old actress at the center of the indie comedy sensation of the season. In Juno, which was directed by Jason Reitman, Page stars as a wisecracking 16-year-old. Juno gets knocked up by her track-nerd best friend (Michael Cera) and makes a series of unexpected choices, carrying the baby to term and offering it up for adoption to a couple of suburban yuppies, who are more, and less, than they seem (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman).
On paper, an underage-pregnancy saga doesn’t sound like the sort of movie that would pry teenagers from their laptops. But Juno has become a massive crossover hit, sailing past $100 million and landing Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. The Best Picture race may include such high-pedigree contenders as There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, and Atonement, but little $6.5 million Juno has surpassed them all. ”It’s hard to even wrap my head around,” Page says of the Oscar nominations. ”The people I got to work with were just insanely awesome. And most importantly, it was something that everyone’s hearts were just fully thrown into.”
Juno has become a bona fide phenomenon — a rare cultural touchstone for millions of young female moviegoers. That’s something that nobody anticipated. Log on to YouTube and you’ll find scads of homemade videos with girls (and guys) singing songs they’ve written about the film (”Good morning, Juno/You’re going to get through this…”). Others are stenciling their favorite Junoisms onto T-shirts (”They call me the cautionary whale”), while Facebook and other websites are quickly filling up with breathless declarations of Juno love: ”[Juno] is everything a girl like me wishes she could be,” writes one. ”Blunt, brave, chill, caring, hilarious, ingenious, mirthful…totally boss…alive, sparkling…retro…and nonchalantly kick-ass.”
After years of being served mostly bland good girls and ciphers — from Molly Ringwald in the ’80s to Alicia Silverstone in the ’90s to Lindsay Lohan in the ’00s — teenage girls are clearly starving for a female antihero, as are their mothers, fathers, older sisters, and even some of their brothers. In Juno, the story of a pint-size badass who also happens to be a romantic idealist, Hollywood has finally delivered. ”It’s a teenage female lead we’ve never seen before,” says Page. ”She dresses like she wants, says what she wants, and doesn’t apologize for it…. Girls haven’t had that sort of character before. We don’t have our Catcher in the Rye.” In what may be the ultimate sign of success, there’s even a cranky backlash bubbling up, much of it from adults who question whether teenage girls are really all that clever.
Regardless, Page and the film have been on an awards-season rocket ride for weeks now, picking up trophies from the National Board of Review, the Chicago Film Critics, and the Gotham Awards, as well as three Golden Globe nominations. Not that Page is counting. On the contrary, the 5’1″ actress seems relieved that the Globes got canceled because of the writers’ strike. ”Sometimes I think I come off as a Hollywood-hater, and it’s not true. I’m not some judgmental prick,” she says. ”It’s not like I’m ‘Boo hoo! People like the movie.’ You know what I mean?” Hollywood’s hottest new starlet spent the day ordinarily devoted to the Globes frolicking at the Six Flags amusement park instead.
When Page first saw The Breakfast Club a while back, it seemed to her like a dusty relic, with its new-wave soundtrack and dated high school caste system. There was the jock (Emilio Estevez), the rebel (Judd Nelson), the freak (Ally Sheedy), the princess (Molly Ringwald), and the nerd (Anthony Michael Hall). "It's obviously not about my generation, but I was like, okay, they're all just talking and realizing they're human beings," says Page, who was born in 1987, two years after the movie was released. "But then it was all about Ally Sheedy changing to look like the pretty girl to get with Emilio Estevez, for chrissakes." She bangs her fist on the table. "I was so angry."
Diablo Cody knows the feeling. "There was a lack of authentic teen girl characters.... I saw writing this screenplay as an opportunity to create an iconic female," says the 29-year-old former stripper and phone-sex operator who penned Juno's script (and who now has a gig as a columnist for EW). "I think women are often positioned as a support structure for men, and that's certainly not been my experience. Some women want to be heroes!"
And some long to be antiheroes. But ever since James Dean started swinging a switchblade as the tortured outcast in Rebel Without a Cause, angst-ridden soul-searching has been considered strictly a male prerogative at the movies. Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Johnny Depp in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries, John Cusack in Say Anything, Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore, Ethan Hawke in virtually everything — they all have one thing in common: a Y chromosome. No matter what slings and arrows those boys suffered in their movies— often they involved the acquisition and maintenance of a girl — none of them had to worry about consequences with a capital C: getting pregnant or walking alone into an abortion clinic.
Sure, Hollywood has occasionally served up edgy female outcasts, such as Winona Ryder in Heathers or the forlorn geek girls in Ghost World played by Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch. But those characters were more weirdos than antiheroes. They were marginalized by their difference, whereas Juno is empowered by hers. For the most part, the options for young actresses have been limited to Princesses and Mean Girls. "You either have the rich Laguna Beach thing, where the only thing they're worrying about is what jeans to wear to impress Bobby," says Page, "or you have the girl who dresses in black and cuts herself."
Pre-Juno, the conventional wisdom in Hollywood was that women would go to see movies about guys, while the prototypical "chick flick" was a prison sentence for most young men. That's why even romantic comedies, once solidly female turf, have lately migrated to the guy's point of view (Knocked Up, The 40 Year-Old Virgin). Films for females have almost become a niche genre — fantasies about winning Prince Charming (Enchanted) or having a fabulous beach wedding (27 Dresses). The environment hasn't encouraged writers and directors to get creative with female characters. "When I first started, everybody was looking for a female Animal House," says director Amy Heckerling, who took on the flora and fauna of high school in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High and 1995's Clueless. "It never came to be because [studios] don't like to see women being sexual, being rowdy, being slovenly. That's all okay for boys. But I don't think a girl could smash a bottle against her head for your amusement." Cody agrees: "I think it's easier to fall back on tired archetypes that [studios] know will bring people to the theater," she says. "It helps that I had a very cynical attitude going into this. I didn't ever think this film would be produced. So that gave me the freedom to write the kind of movie I wanted to see."
Not surprisingly, the kind of movie Cody wanted to see initially scared off every major studio. "A lot of people were worried that we would be protested by right-to-lifers or pro-choice people," says producer Lianne Halfon of an early incarnation of the project, which was ushered by her company Mr. Mudd. "They also worried that Juno was sexualized. For her, sex wasn't regrettable. She terms it 'magnificent.'" Even after Fox Searchlight greenlit the film, expectations were modest. "We thought it was going to be a smaller movie because of the subject matter," says studio COO Nancy Utley. "How accepted is your main character going to be, walking around pregnant in her school clothes at 16 years old? On the surface, it didn't sound like a very commercial idea."
But with a budget of just $6.5 million — less than the dry-cleaning bill on Prada — the studio took a chance on an offbeat comedy about teenage motherhood. Luckily for Reitman, he found just the right girl to slip on the prosthetic belly. "I didn't want just another TV kid who was basically doing a bit," he says, noting wryly that he had to travel all the way to Canada (where both Page and Cera were born) to find the last unspoiled young actors left on earth. "When you talk to Ellen, you feel like you're talking to someone who has already left the country of Teenagedom."
"It felt like a sense of humor I could completely relate to," says Page, who first caught Hollywood's eye when she turned the tables on a pedophile in the harrowing 2006 thriller Hard Candy. Page even became the set's self-appointed authenticity police. She helped come up with the idea of dressing Juno in flannel shirts and sweater-vests, as well as her character's devotion to the Moldy Peaches (frontwoman Kimya Dawson ended up providing much of the hit soundtrack for the film). Page even improvised the term "fo' shizz" — an ironic-Ebonics version of "for sure!" — which is becoming a catchphrase. "Sometimes, when you're playing the quirky girl, she becomes someone's idea of what a quirky girl looks like — a commercialized quirky girl," Page says. "I'm glad a young, interesting, and different female character [like Juno] is out in the world and doing well at the box office."
Right now, at this very minute, you can be sure that Hollywood's best brains are working overtime to crack the code of Juno's success. "I think that when the strike ends we'll see a lot of scripts with smart, funny, and subversive teen girl characters," says a production executive at a rival studio. "Everybody in town wishes they had Juno." In Hollywood, imitation isn't just the sincerest form of flattery — it's standard business practice.
But to extract a formula from Juno would be to miss the point, and the imitators will likely fail as they always tend to. "This movie feels authentic to young people and doesn't cast adults as idiots," says producer Russell Smith. "Look at the political world — if you say the word 'change,' everybody gets up and applauds. That's where we are: We're dying for something different." Thanks to Juno's triumph, Cody and Reitman are already working on Jennifer's Body. "The movie's plotline," says Reitman, "is kind of like 'if Juno was possessed by a demon and started eating her classmates.'"
As for Page, she is circumspect about the impact of Juno's success on her own career. In April, she'll turn up as Dennis Quaid's tart-tongued daughter in the romantic comedy Smart People. Beyond that? "It's kind of daunting to be a young actor with some stuff happening," she says. She gazes around the dining room before pulling her hands into her sleeves and retreating further into her hood. "I could do the whole [Hollywood] thing if I wanted, but I'm not going to. I look at someone like Johnny Depp or Kate Winslet and they seem to be strong individuals who have decided to take risks and be unique.... It could be easy to rush into something, so I want to take my time to figure out what's really going to get me excited."
To paraphrase her character in Juno, Page doesn't yet know what kind of girl she is. And to paraphrase all those rebellious young spirits in the audience, it's going to be a thrill just watching her find out.
"Juno dresses like she wants, says what she wants, and doesn't apologize for it. Girls haven't had that sort of character before. We don't have our Catcher in the Rye," says Page.