Young Adult (2011)
The basis for the movie Young Adult sounds like writer Diablo Cody settling a few sore scores. You’d think winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for 2007’s Juno would have sufficed. Reteaming with her Juno director, fellow Oscar-nominee Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), the duo takes aim at the bitchy, stuck-up, popular girl that seemed to rule the school. Young Adult is much more than a vicarious act of vengeance on mean high school adversaries. It’s a revealing, awkward yet compelling dark comedy about the perils and pitfalls of arrested development.
Life hasn’t turned out exactly the way Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) would have thought. The former high school queen bee has left her small town for life in Minneapolis. She’s the ghostwriter for a successful series of young adult books, a series that is coming to an end. She’s divorced form her husband, facing financial ruin, and living alone with her tiny Pomeranian, Dolce, her only friend. Mavis decides to forgo writing the last book in the cancelled series and instead return to her hometown the triumphant mini-celebrity she knows herself to be. She’s determined to find her old boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and win him back. The fact that Buddy is married and has a newborn baby is no real impediment to Mavis’s crazy plan (“Hey, I’ve got baggage too,” she reasons). Once home, she runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) in a bar. Matt and Mavis went to high school together, though she has long forgotten the likes of him. Matt’s claim to fame was that a bunch of jocks in high school savagely beat him thinking he was gay. Matt sees right through Mavis and the two of them become an unlikely pair as Mavis plots and schemes her way to victory.
Young Adult is one of the most enjoyable squirmiest times you can have at the theater. Much of its humor, and it is very funny, is built around the pained awkwardness of Mavis’ self-involved, self-destructive mission. My friend was nervously fidgeting in his seat the entire time (he may have just had to go to the bathroom). The sense of dread is palatable; we’re watching a slow-moving car crash, waiting for the inevitable to hit. Every scene carries the apprehension of, “What is she going to say/do next? Is this it?” And yet Cody’s sharp, pointed writing makes the film compulsively watchable. We dislike Mavis, an irredeemable character who doesn’t even try to be likeable, and yet by the film’s conclusion most audience members will likely feel more pity for Mavis than outright hatred. I’ve had some friends ask me if Young Adult was anything like Bad Teacher, another movie about an abrasive, selfish, unlikeable bad apple. This movie is different. This movie is actually good. Mavis is not some wacky cartoon character, and Reitman has kept his reaction shots to a minimum, abstaining from having to remind us via public reaction how inappropriate Mavis can be. Unlike Bad Teacher, this grown-up meanie feels all too real, and her actions come across as believably threatening. This woman could do some serious damage on her way to massage her damaged ego. The movie never condones her actions, though Reitman and Cody make a point of piling on against Mavis. This woman is an ugly wreck, and Cody’s writing and Theron’s gutsy performance speaks volumes. Cody’s writing isn’t the hyper-literate, stylized dialogue we’re accustomed to from Juno. The dialogue and characters are eerily recognizable, miles away from the cuteness of Juno’s sunny, optimistic fairy tale inhabitants. Young Adult is a more nuanced, droll, mature work that deserves as much recognition as Juno and cements Cody, in my mind, as one of the most thrilling writers today (I can almost forgive her for Jennifer’s Body. Almost).
Along with all the bleak comedy, Young Adult lands a surprising number of poignant dramatic blows. Cody has crafted an exacting character study on a severe case of arrested development. Many of us can relate to knowing that one gal in high school, the pretty, popular one who had everything in life handed to her. In Young Adult, Cody shows the devastating consequences of a lifetime of entitlement and zero introspection. Mavis secretly knows that she’s past her prime, that all the people she left in her Podunk town have moved on to richer lives while she’s stayed in the same holding pattern her whole life. Some part of her has never left high school. She’s an emotionally stunted woman trying to live out the fantasy of one of her undervalued books (her misreading of the end of The Graduate into a love-conquers-all message is rather telling). Mavis’ life is hardly the stuff of Champaign wishes and caviar dreams, but to the people of her hometown, life in the “Mini-apple” is the Big Time. There’s a fabulous scene where Mavis goes into a bookstore and sees her series on a clearance stack. The bookstore employee tells her they don’t sell and will be most likely sent back to the publisher. Mavis takes out her pen and autographs one, informing this minimum-wage peon that she is the fabled author of the series. She’s expecting fawning admiration. The employee flatly tells her, “If you sign them, we can’t send them back to the publisher.” In her disgust, she tries to sign as many as she can as an act of defiance. Later in the movie, Cody sheds light on Mavis’ family life, offering intriguing clues for how this woman became so broken. Her parents just seem to shrug off Mavis’ admission of alcoholism, like they’re used to their daughter acting out, even if she might really be crying out for help. She’s a fascinating character to watch crash and burn.
What gives the film its most potent sense of heart (Grinch-sized though it may be) is the unlikely yet compelling relationship between Mavis and Matt. Unlike Mavis’ perceived slings and arrows, Matt has suffered real trauma from high school. His bones were shattered from that brutal beat down and he’s left to limp with a crutch. He hasn’t been able to mentally leave high school behind completely himself, but then again he has a constant reminder. Mavis is strangely her most open with Matt, possibly because she doesn’t view him as a threat or a credible alternative (the joys of high school revisited – the pretty gal ignoring the existence of the lower classes). He’s portrayed as the film’s voice of reason, voicing concern over Mavis’ kamikaze narcissism. Together they form what could charitably be described as a friendship. She seeks him out to talk at odd hours of the night and he’s straightforward with her. He thinks her plan is nuts, but he’s also secretly enjoying his unexpected friendship with the queen bee of high school, albeit twenty years later. “Guys like me are made to love girls like you,” he confides to Mavis. Oswalt has shown some dramatic skills in the underappreciated sports fanatic flick, Big Fan. With this movie, Oswalt gives an achingly felt performance, the most empathetic character in the whole movie and a joy to watch onscreen in a high-profile role that fits him like a glove.
But the true star of the film is Theron, who gives a fully formed and entrancing performance as someone who is as ugly on the inside as she is beautiful on the outside. Her character could have easily slipped into being an unsympathetic monster; someone the audience wants punished (like Cameron Diaz’ character in Bad Teacher). But the actress finds her own twisted, tricky way to center the character. Every detestable glance, every pained inhalation, every rigorous attempt at seduction, it feels like the character coming alive before our eyes. Theron has dissolved into the abhorrent mess that is Mavis Gary. She’s convinced that Buddy could never be happy with such a mundane life in a mundane town (“There’s a restaurant that’s a Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC in one building” she says incredulously). Her perspective is so deluded that you start to see the manufactured world Mavis has so cautiously built around herself as a defense from reality. She watches wall-to-wall reality TV, the perfect metaphor of our times concerning the idolization of idiocy and self-absorption. She may not be likeable but she’s definitely compelling, and Theron is so good as that-girl-from-high-school all grown up, that she might even win over some slight sympathy by the film’s end. At one point, the inner fear of Mavis reveals itself, and she expresses her confusion about the attainability of happiness. Why can others find happiness with so little, and she cannot find it with everything that she has?
Young Adult is a dark comedy of squirm-inducing, uncomfortable bleakness and a drama of surprising poignancy and depth. It’s the good kind of uncomfortable, the kind where you can’t look away or leave the vicinity of your seat. Theron and Oswalt are fantastic. Cody’s gift with words, teamed up with Reitman’s gift with actors, makes a beautiful combination even when the end product is charting the misery or a miserable person. The measured tone is kept from start ot finish, meaning even when the movie appears on the precipice of life-lessons and Mavis might turn her life around, it pulls back. There will be no hugs and gained wisdom with this movie, a crackling comedy that’s also one of the best pictures of the year. Take that, popular girls who never gave me the time of day.
Nate’s Grade: A