Reuniting with writer Diablo Cody, director Jason Reitman‘s latest is a darkly humorous character study of a woman who has never grown up. In fact, she may be incapable of doing so. We’ve seen stories like this before where a shallow lead character gets his/her comeuppance and has a last minute change of heart. Thankfully, Young Adult is not that movie.
Cody and Reitman are for more interested in showcasing how people don’t change over time than how a singular reality-smashing awakening can transform a character and cause real change. Mavis is a pretty reprehensible self-entitled bitch at the beginning of the film, and a couple of days spent in her hometown doesn’t do much to change that fact. Even if she is a bit humbled by events, she’s still the same person she’s always been.
On learning that her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) and his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) have just had a baby boy, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) leaves Minneapolis and travels home to the small suburb of her birth. Sadly, she doesn’t make the trip for the purpose she was invited, to attend the family’s baby shower.
No, Mavis has other plans which center mainly on stealing her first love away from his family and living happily ever after. Of course, to Mavis, it doesn’t matter that Buddy is happily married. Her mission is clear. She packs up her dog and high school mix tape (a terrific touch, by the way) and begins her journey.
Mavis is deeply unhappy. Her career as a ghost writer for a series of young adult novels facing cancellation is at an end. She’s also dimly aware that somewhere along the line she’s become an alcoholic (the character spends almost the entire length of the movie in some level of a drunken state). Somehow she convinces herself reconnecting with her high school flame can solve all her problems.
Theron, one of the most underrated actresses working today, is terrific in a role that requires us to care about a main character whose selfish intentions include breaking up a happily married couple for her own ends. Mavis isn’t a fool, she’s simply self-deluded and far too experienced at blinding herself to a harsh reality that doesn’t fit into her narrow world view.
If Theron is the Grinch who Stole Christmas, Patton Oswalt is her Max. Oswalt stars as a former classmate of Mavis who was badly beaten by a group of students who wrongly believed he was gay. Still suffering from the physical attack years later, Max has moved in with his sister (Collette Wolfe) and spends most of his time hiding from the world. Max knows exactly who and what Mavis is, but is still enchanted by her – even when she shares her plan to get Buddy back. He, perhaps alone in the entire film, feels Mavis is better than what she’s become.
Only once, after truly hitting rock bottom and admitting to herself what a mistake she’s made by returning home, does Mavis finally question her life. In an amusing twist, however, this moment takes the road less traveled thanks to the unexpected advice she receives from an unlikely source.
Much like Reitman and Cody’s previous collaboration, Juno, Young Adult is centered around a female character, but that’s really where the similarities end. Where Juno was a story about rising above and dealing with a real-life situation thrust upon you long before you are ready for it, Young Adult is focused on a character full of self-delusion and incapable of dealing with a reality that doesn’t meet her expectations. Juno (Ellen Page) was forced to grow up too early and deal with a situation far beyond her years of experience. Mavis refuses to grow up at all.
Over the years Reitman has made some terrific films. Juno, Thank You for Smoking, and Up in the Air all have made my end of the year lists (Up in the Air being my favorite film of 2009). Young Adult might be the least ambitious project he’s helmed, but as a character study of a truly fucked up individual it works to perfection.