Independent films are an interesting breed. Made outside the mainstream studio structure, the best ones compensate for their lower production value with a better story and characters. Every year an indie or two does captures the collective fascination of critics and the public by doing so. This year's darling is Juno, the name of the newly pregnant teenage girl around whom the simple story revolves. (Audio review here.)

Like many such films, Juno's strengths lie in its unique characters. Foremost among them is the titular one, who has a singular vernacular and attitude that carries the movie. As she decides what to do with the child, she must also deal with the various reactions from her family and friends. But rather than become depressed or reclusive, Juno instead chooses a positive approach, dealing with her issues directly and responsibly. This leads to a relatively sunny take on subjects often approached in a dark or politically charged manner. The movie does tell you what to think about issues; it does not argue strongly either way; it just tells you what characters are doing, and gives a little of their rationale, somewhat like Clint Eastwood's phenomenal Million Dollar Baby a few years back.

On one hand, making light of serious situations like abortion and divorce feels wrong. Conversely, the ability and opportunity to laugh at potentially overbearing situations is a relief, and it is part of what makes us human. While such reactions likely would not be appropriate in reality, movies are not reality, but an escape in which a little levity is more than appropriate.

From the guitar-laced harmonic strains of its soundtrack to the aforementioned quirky characters, Juno is a quintessential indie flick. Like Garden State, it has a few transcendent glimpses into the human soul, but they are too few and far between to carry the movie to extreme heights. Like Little Miss Sunshine, it places quirky characters into unusual and often comic circumstances, but the humorous moments here do not approach the hilarity of Little Miss Sunshine. Most of the comedy is based upon the unique dialogue or the continual series of culture clashes between Juno and everyone, which are amusing throughout.

Some critics (Roger Ebert) are hailing Juno as the year's best film, which is a drastic overstatement. Such grand labels are a joke, and a statement on how monotonous comedies have become. Its ipseity amidst the dramatic leanings of most Oscar contenders makes the movie better and more enjoyable than it actually should be. Juno is a cool breeze drifting through an open window, not an eye-popping blast from the air conditioner. It is enjoyable and well-crafted, not the best film of the year, maybe a fringe contender for the top ten.

Bottom Line: The movie is equivalent to its main character: cute and likeable, but lacking in a few areas. Recommended primarily for indie fans. 7 of 10.

Side Note: As I mentioned in an earlier comment, after this year's Oscars, I'm blowing up my rating system and starting anew. I'm tired of giving everything a seven.

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