Jason Reitman‘s Young Adult is darkly comic and wholly honest. It doesn’t pander to audience expectations, which is to say it concerns itself with telling a story rather than making sure it conforms to any standard set of Hollywood storytelling rules. At one point you’ll be laughing while only a few minutes later you may be cringing uncomfortably, but films aren’t always meant to be safe, warm bath soothers. The trick is occasionally getting the audience out of their comfort zone while also being able to bring them back and never miss a beat. Reitman does this with seeming ease coupled with performances and a script deserving recognition.
Young Adult is an original script from Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody and it happily proves she’s not all about hamburger phones and quirky one-liners. However, those one-liners that served her well with Juno still come in handy here, though they’re not so cloyingly pop culture and they’re delivered with an acerbic wit and sting when coming out of the mouth of someone that should be beyond such childish behavior. Yet, this is just one of the qualities attributed to Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), the film’s resident teenager trapped in the body of a 30-something adult and she’s got plenty more to share.
Mavis is the ghost writer of a series of young adult novels and as she prepares what will be the final installment in the “Waverly Prep” series she finds the only cure for her writer’s block is to inject her own life story into the pages, an irony she seems entirely oblivious to.
Throughout the film we’re often greeted by Mavis as she wakes face down in bed, hungover from the night before. She’s usually alone, but there are moments where she finds it necessary to slide out from underneath the arm of the naked man lying next to her. His name isn’t important, he’s just filler in Mavis’ life, a life that appears to have lost all direction (not that she’d admit to that), but after receiving the announcement that her high school sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), just had a baby she finds herself forced into action. She vows to head back to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota and win him back; wife, kid, world be damned. Oh, did I forget to mention, Mavis is a bitch.
Mavis is the prom queen that still sees herself as the princess and everyone else as a stepping stone on her path to reclaiming her prize. Accompanied by Dolce, her puffball Pomeranian, she hops in her Mini Cooper, cranks up Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept” and makes way for Mercury and it isn’t long before she’s on the hunt.
Driving straight from Minneapolis to Mercury she soon finds herself rolling through town late at night, noting the “Ke-Taco-Hut” (a Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut all under the same roof) and snarling as she views her hometown as puny and the people in it pathetic and beneath her. This first night proves fruitless in her mission to win back Buddy so she does what she does best… drinks.
Pulling up to one of her old haunts she begins putting down shots when she’s noticed by her high school opposite, Matt (Patton Oswalt), an old classmate Mavis has a hard time remembering despite the fact his locker was adjacent to hers all throughout high school. At this moment, as an audience member, you’re still trying to cut Mavis some slack but all that is about to go out the window. It isn’t until she remembers Matt as “Hate Crime Guy” that she starts putting the pieces together. It’s a moment in the film where any compassion you may have had for her character goes entirely out the window and yet, it is human nature to want to forgive and movies have taught us people can change their ways… The question is, can they?
Mavis lays out her entire plan to Matt, a caring geek of a guy who lives with his sister and makes his own home brewed bourbon and names it after fictional locales from the Star Wars universe. So, yeah, he has a few issues of his own, but at least he isn’t hurting anyone. Oswalt embodies Matt’s geeky side with ease, but it’s his ability to truly create a fleshed out character that impresses the most as I’ve only seen him in small supporting roles or in the occasional “King of Queens” re-runs, but suffice to say, he shows some real talent opposite Theron who is also working at an incredibly high level.
This chance meeting creates an odd relationship as Mavis begins relying on Matt’s companionship and “Star Wars juice” as she puts her plan in action, a plan Matt doesn’t approve of, but at the moment he’s getting attention from the pretty girl from high school so he’s going with it. Young Adult mines these kinds of commentaries without trying. Just as much as I mentioned that it’s human nature to forgive and to want to see people change, there are other aspects of human nature we can’t help but find ourselves giving in to even if we know we shouldn’t. Matt isn’t the kind of person to support Mavis’ end goal, he’s a decent guy, but the fact he’s still living with his sister and sits in his basement bedroom reconfiguring action figures doesn’t say a lot for the hand life has dealt him so he’s taking advantage where he can.
Young Adult is a comedic tragedy. Theron’s character is so mean-spirited you may need to force yourself to get over the kind of person she is just so you can laugh, because you’re meant to. Yet, at the same time, there is a certain level of empathy you gain for her. No one wants to see someone destroy themselves, let alone be blind to the destruction they are causing. This also isn’t a case of everything being her fault, a realization we come to during an unplanned meal with her parents at which she says, “I think I might be an alcoholic.” It’s a statement that goes largely ignored and the day moves on as if nothing was ever said.
Reitman and Cody have walked a delicate line, centering their story on a protagonist that’s, more-or-less, impossible to like is a risky move and yet the story says as much about the character Mavis is as it does about the real world around us as she spends hours watching the Kardashians on television and is looked at as both the bitch she is, and yet by others as something to strive to be.
No matter how you view Mavis, she’s a character worth getting to know and one I cannot wait to revisit. Mavis may still have plenty to learn, but I think she, and her experiences, can teach us a lot as well.