Young Adult, 2011.
Directed by Jason Reitman.
Starring Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Elizabeth Reaser, Patrick Wilson, Collette Wolfe and Hettienne Park.
After receiving news that her old flame, Buddy (Patrick Wilson) has had a baby, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) decides to return to her hometown to break up his marriage and win him back.
Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a Minneapolis-residing divorcee who works as the ghost writer of a successful series of young adult books (think Sweet Valley High). It’s fitting that someone who has spent her life writing as a teenager has herself struggled to grow out of that mentality. The plot may seem familiar, but Young Adult never conforms to your expectations. It’s made clear early on that Mavis isn’t alright, and as the affable foil to her bitter vindictive character, Patton Oswalt’s Matt, tries to make clear to her, what she intends to do isn’t alright either.
She chastises Matt for never growing up – he collects models and lives with his sister – but it’s obvious that it’s her that never grew up. Whereas Matt’s suffering at the hand of the same jocks that she fooled around with made him grow to be a decent, warm individual, Mavis never suffered, so she never grew. Young Adult is the exploration of what happens to the queen bee when she gets old, and in the case of Mavis, it isn’t pretty. She’s damaged, depressed and seemingly incapable of empathy. In fact, as she partially acknowledges herself, she’s probably an alcoholic. But it’s to the film’s credit that things like that are never pointed out to you. Her instability is for much of the film, subtle, Theron wisely playing her down, more gently psychotic than fatal attraction-crazy. Her unhappiness is mostly below the surface. We repeatedly see her tugging at her hair, and it’s only our inference that she, a former winner of the graduation award for Best Hair, is pulling it out.
Some viewers may struggle with the protagonist. Mavis isn’t just unsympathetic, she’s horrible, and though there are reasons for the way she is, it’s difficult to enjoy a film where not only do you dislike the main character, but where you can also see what’s coming to her a mile away.
What Diablo Cody’s script does so well is put across Mavis’s arrested development without making her a caricature. As Buddy notes: “you sound just like one of your characters”. He’s right. She exhibits the same kind of Juno-esque patter as the teenagers she uses as inspiration for her books. She listens to the same music – the soundtrack provided by a mix-tape she made for buddy, kept in her car. The opening credits show us the workings of the cassette reels, as she rewinds the same Teenage Fanclub song she used to ‘make out’ to with Buddy, over and over, reliving her favourite part. Touches like this are evidence of both Cody and Reitman’s development as writer and director, not afraid to show restraint where Juno would spell it out.
The script is as sharp as Juno was: “Love always prevails Matt, did you not see The Graduate?” but also terrifically sad. What could easily have been riddled with cliché is instead refreshingly free of it. There is so often the notion in films like this that ‘There’s no place like home’, an idea roundly rejected by Young Adult. Reitman too, exhibits a lightness of touch that he’s honed over his four-film career. He had an uncertain start with the patchy Thank You for Smoking, but here he shows himself to be both skilled and remarkably confident. Stories like this aren’t easy to tell, and Reitman does it better than anyone.
Young Adult is, ostensibly, a comedy, but it isn’t particularly funny, though that isn’t necessarily a criticism. Like Up in the Air, it’s a character study of someone who isn’t happy, and isn’t exactly sure why not. In Mavis’s case she’s in denial, constantly expressing her pity for those who stayed in her home town while failing to recognize how happy they are. When Matt asks her if she’s moved back home, her answer is “of course not, gross”. She takes her escape to the city as evidence that she’s grown up, even while she’s coming home to win back someone she was with almost twenty years ago.
If there are criticisms, the third act isn’t funny enough (although it clearly doesn’t intend to be), Wilson’s Buddy is just a little dull and the conclusion isn’t entirely satisfying. But then, this is exactly the point of the film. Mavis is never going to get the kind of absurdly neat resolution she gives her surrogate in her book. She’s left just as damaged as before, and just as sad. But whereas in Up in the Air this was entirely appropriate, here it might have been nice if Mavis had been given a little hope.
It may come from the same people, but don’t expect Juno 2. Young Adult is a cynical, difficult film, but while it comes with a blistering central performance from Theron, it’s maybe one to admire rather than love.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★