RATING |

I feel almost duty-bound to say something contentious about the highly praised "Juno," but truth is, it's every bit as good as advertised.

My only quibble would come with those who say it's this year's "Little Miss Sunshine." That certainly isn't true. This movie is about 10 times better.

"Juno" is genuinely touching and hilarious, even brave - brazenly looking for laughs in the minefield of abortion clinics, teen pregnancy and even darker territory.

And to top it all off, its tone is set by a wisecracking, know-it-all teen, the kind who's driven many a parent straight to the liquor cabinet. Her name is Juno (Ellen Page) and she also ends up being one of the most likable characters of 2007.

She's no mere snot, in other words. Her verbal jabs, crosses and counterpunches (uproarious teen-speak designed by screenwriter Diablo Cody) are a wall to protect and conceal what's inside - a typically volatile teen cocktail of confusion and need.

And also a great, big heart. Juno's casual indifference is a pose: If Juno's a rebel, it's against being abandoned. She makes jokes about the mother who left her, but the loss is clearly felt. Juno wants to be loved, and in fact is in love - all of which comes to explain how this shrewd, cagey teen ends up in a family way.

When she summons her dad and stepmom (beautifully played by J.J. Simmons and Allison Janney) for the big announcement, they are initially sure she's been expelled, suspended or perhaps arrested. You can read their stunned faces: This can't be. This chick is just too with-it.

But pregnant she is, a life-altering development the movie handles with an attitude that's as deceptively carefree as Juno herself. Humor keeps everything at arm's length - the potentially wrenching process of considering abortion/adoption, seeking the right parents, making the courageous decision to waddle through the halls of her high school with an ever-expanding baby bump.

Much of "Juno" involves her growing relationship with the baby's prospective parents - including a well-cast Jennifer Garner as a beautiful, Type A perfectionist.

One reason that "Juno" is a good movie: The woman's suburban perfection and mommy-desperation are not fodder for cheap jokes. That she's an overachiever whose most coveted achievement is biologically out of reach is treated as a downplayed tragedy, a tiny model of how a smart director accords dignity to supporting characters.

More complex, trickier and maybe flawed is Juno's relationship with the husband (Jason Bateman, also good) - a restless fellow not entirely enthusiastic about being a father.

His growing bond with Juno pulls the movie close to something that feels like a misstep - an excruciating scene that seems to call for just a smidgen more of the finesse and tact evident everywhere else.

A small thing, though, in a movie with so many riches, including Page's first-rate work as Juno, a girl who learns the painful difference between intelligence and wisdom.

It would have been easy for Page to get lost in Juno's snarky mannerisms, but she makes up for it in her generous interaction with other actors: She's wonderful with Michael Cera (Juno's awkward boyfriend) and Olivia Thirlby (Juno's best friend).

This is a movie wherein women, finally, are allowed to be as clever, funny, and hip as the guys in the Apatow movies. And it's better, even, than "Knocked Up." It's a knockout.

Produced by Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith, Mason Novick, directed by Jason Reitman, written by Diablo Cody, music by Mateo Messina, distributed by Fox Searchlight.