Young Adult is the second feature film collaboration by writer Diablo Cody (Diablo – good lawd) and director Jason Reitman – their first was the infinitely irritating smart-arse ‘hipster’ indie hit Juno, but let’s not hold that against them. Everyone deserves a second chance.
Especially when they’ve cast Charlize Theron as the lead. I don’t care much about actors, but there are a few who mesmerise me – and Theron is one of this rare breed. I reckon she’s shaping as the female counterpart to George Clooney: ludicrously good-looking, intelligent, cynical about stardom and its trappings, and in touch with her humanity – and thus, the ‘ordinariness’ of lives unblessed with movie star wealth and status. Indeed, she’s gone a lot further than ‘ordinariness’, getting very down and dirty (Monster). Here, again, she is prepared to wallow in her murkiest depths to emerge as a most unlikeable character – the narcissistic, marriage-wrecking, mean and manipulative Mavis Gary.
Mavis, ex-prom queen now in her late 30s and still a statuesque blonde knockout, has geographically left behind her mid-west small-town upbringing. As a Minneopolis-based ghost writer of a faddishly successful teen vampire novel series, she is doing OK, it seems, but something ain’t right. Her apartment is dishevelled, the big flatscreen permanently tuned to soaps and the Kartrashians providing a vacuous background to her apparently rather lean existence. She spends a lot of time lying around hung over in trackies and stained Ts, skols Coke from the bottle for breakfast, and despite her physical advantages, is still clubbing for sex. Her only friend appears to be her little white fluffy doggie, which is more huggy toy than pet.
An emailed pic of her now-married high school sweetheart Buddy’s (Patrick Wilson) first-born baby sparks a nostalgia-driven fantasy that blooms into dark delusion. Convinced Buddy is entrapped in a dull suburban marriage, Mavis departs Minneapolis to ‘rescue’ and reclaim him for herself. It’s around this point that we start to suspect that the narrative voice of her teen romance novels is not mere literary persona. It is Mavis who is entrapped – in a teenage past she has never left behind, and in the juvenile world of her pulp fiction. This is reinforced by her choice of 90s rock music as she travels towards her hometown in her old car, repeatedly playing (on a car cassette, no less!) uber-cool Kurt Cobain-endorsed Teenage Fanclub’s The Concept.
The trip home is a rude awakening – or should be. Buddy is happily married, and although politely accepting Mavis’s invitation to meet up, makes it at 6pm rather than her suggested 8pm (he has fathering and husbandly duties). His wife is affable and friendly, not an arch-bitch, and isn’t even a housewifely suburban dork; in fact, she plays in a local all-mum band that covers – you guessed it – The Concept! Hard to do the dirty on her, you’d think, but Mavis is undeterred.
As she enters a spiral of scheming and self-delusion that can lead nowhere good, she develops a friendship with Matt (Patton Oswalt). A geeky misfit who lives with his mousey sister and spends his time in the garage distilling his own bourbon and painting action hero figurines, he is an extreme victim of school bullying, having been maimed in a homophobic attack, which left him lame. He and Mavis hit it off, although unlike her he is not retarded in his development and does his best to point out the folly of her designs on Buddy. But her sails are set…
Theron and Oswalt are terrific, playing off against each other in a macabre, contemporary, black-humoured nod to beauty and the beast. While all performances are competent, this is very much their show and they make the most of it. Gutsy stuff, in which they strip themselves naked – figuratively and literally – exposing themselves before the harsh light of a merciless screenplay that leaves no character flaw hidden. Yet, the filmmakers are not working to a didactic agenda. Their treatment of Mavis is not punitive. Yes, she is self-absorbed, self-pitying, insensitive and at times cruel, and she pays a high price, but it’s difficult to despise her because ultimately we see her as damaged and insecure.
Further, there’s a time-honoured (though unjustified) tradition of tolerating the personal shortcomings of the artist who must – apparently – nurture the inner child at the expense of the adult. While Mavis, as a ghost writer of teen crap, might not quite qualify for such mercies, the meshing of the authorial and real-life thought processes does leave some room for sympathy.
In a sense, poor lame Matt is the physical manifestation of the damaged goods that lurk within Mavis, although her beautiful exterior is not quite a reflection of Matt’s inner self (nothing that neat and symmetrical going on here!). He has developed some adult wisdom, and his psyche is deeper than Mavis’ shallow, reflective puddle, but he dwells with physical and spiritual pain, and is understandably bitter at the cards he has been dealt. In a poignant line towards the end of the movie, he says to Mavis: “Guys like me were born loving women like you.”
Does he end up with her?
Does Mavis ‘develop’ as a character, learning from the errors of her ways?
What do you think?
This is good contemporary fare, reflective of our times: bleak, but never ponderous, and tempered with dark comedy. It’s an intruiging mix. Two obvious downsides for me are that it was curiously unmoving for the most part, and almost came to grief with the climax, which is way over the top. All in all, though, entertaining, a welcome departure from big cinema formulae, and worth checking out for Theron’s and Oswalt’s performances alone.
For other movie reviews by rolanstein, see Movie Review Archives