There have been many movies about someone like Mavis Gary. She was the queen bee in high school. She had friends, natural good looks and a stud for a boyfriend. She ran the world.
There have indeed been many movies made about the kind of person Mavis Gary was, but not many films about who that person will become. In the case of Jason Reitman's "Young Adult," Mavis (Charlize Theron) is a bitter, self-absorbed alcoholic, living in a unkempt apartment in Minneapolis and ghost writing a once-popular young adult book series about a popular girl in high school with lots of friends, natural good looks and a stud for a boyfriend. During her waking hours she’s either soused, hung over or pining for a life that ended when she was 18.
One day, out of the blue, she gets an email from her high school sweetheart Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). Him and his wife are proud to introduce their first-born child. Despite his new bundle of joy, Mavis is convinced Buddy is miserable in his marriage and that they are meant to be together. After just another morning of waking up with a stranger in her bed, Mavis puts on a dirty Hello Kitty t-shirt, packs her cloths and dog in a travel bag and drives back to her small hometown of Mercury, where she hopes to woo back her old flame. Everyone back home think Mavis is a hot-shot writer, due to a local newspaper article. To them, she's the one that got away.
Back home, she is also reunited with former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). Despite sharing neighboring lockers for all four years of high school, she doesn’t remember him. We later learn there was a heart-shaped mirror in her locker that took much of her attention. But then she notices his crutch. “Wait,” she says, “you’re the hate-crime boy!”
Indeed he is. During high school, a group of oafish jocks attacked Matt and dragged him out to the woods where they beat him mercilessly with a crowbar because he was gay. Or at least that’s what they wrongly thought. Even though it’s been a long time, Matt is nursing the wounds, both physically and emotionally, left that night.
While the movie is about Mavis, it is Matt who is the voice of reason, the person we can latch onto. He certainly has his own baggage, and is perhaps also stuck in the glory days of high school, but unlike Mavis, he knows it.
The best scenes in the film are the ones between Theron and Oswalt. Their sarcastic, wry repartee is funny and quick, but always has a cutting edge to it. But that seems to be a theme with Diablo Cody, the writer, who also penned “Juno.” She has surely matured as a writer since then. It’s almost like she took that film’s trademark rapid-fire pop culture references and quirky slang and left it to age and ferment, creating a much more biting, bitter script that’s also a lot more full and mature.
The title character of “Juno” was able to take a bad situation and rise above it, making the audience fall for her in the process. Juno drew us in, Mavis pushes us away. Rarely have I seen a film built around a more unlikable person. We laugh at her, we pity her, but we don’t like her.
It’s a brave thing for a movie to do, having a main character that is nearly impossible to root for. But herein lies my biggest qualm with “Young Adult”: Are we meant to root for Mavis or should we want her to fail? Does she need a mental hospital or a hug? Is she a bad person or just a victim of circumstance? It’s one thing to let the audience decide, but I’m not sure even Cody or Reitman know.
I would have either liked to see a glimmer of humanity within Mavis or have her spitefulness pushed a bit farther. Maybe it’s for the better, Mavis is not a caricature and neither should she be. Neither is Matt, who could have easily been the reasonably nice guy, or Buddy’s wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), who is not your typically bitchy spouse. We live in a complicated world and nobody’s a hero and nobody’s a villain, things just are the way they are.
Some people are born to become prom queen and some are born to be the outsider lusting after the prom queen.
I’ve talked mostly about the script here, but a mention should be given to the wonderful ensemble cast, especially Oswalt, whose Matt is incredibly likeable and witty, but hiding a deep hurt and frustration for a life that was taken from him. This is Theron’s movie, though. She’s captivating, perfecting capturing a woman stuck in adolescence. It’s a wonderful trick of the movie that from the first shot of her we are entranced by Theron’s gorgeous, movie star good looks but by the end, all we see is a dried-up, drunk mess. What’s the cliché about beauty only being skin deep?
“Young Adult” is a sharp film that’s too dark and deep to be comfortably called a comedy. In fact, it’s closer to “Greenburg” than “Juno.” It has many laughs too, but they are all based in pathos and uncomfortable silences. Parts of it fall a bit flat or are under written, but the parts that work do so amazingly well. And besides, we all loving seeing a mean girl get her comeuppance, even if its equal parts gratifying and disheartening.
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A Thank You
This week’s review is the 25th “Golden Review” column I’ve done for Patch. Wow, time flies! I just wanted to take a quick moment and thank everyone for reading and everyone at Patch for giving me a place to do what I love (IE seeing movies and talking about them to anyone willing to listen). You all have been fantastic listeners.
As always, feel free to comment below with your own thoughts on the given movie or if you have any suggestions of a film I should talk about or a subject i should tackle.
So, here’s to a very happy holidays and a happy new year filled with good heath, happiness and, of course, great films!
About this column: Reviews on the latest releases to hit the silver screen.