The daring and bleak new film Young Adult features the girl you hated in high school: stubborn, conniving, and vicious when she didn't get what she wants. That girl, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), also happens to be beautiful, which makes most of her deficiencies tolerable as a teen.
We never meet Mavis in high school, but it doesn't matter because she's still the same person two decades later.
Only time hasn't been so kind to Mavis, now a newly divorced and barely functioning alcoholic who earns a living as a ghost writer for a "tween" girl book series that's faded from public favor.
Alone, miserable, and teetering on the brink, she clings to her long-ago best years because it's all she has left, along with a made-to-impress face that's visibly showing the wear of hard living.
Mavis makes the only play she feels she has, to reconnect with and marry her high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who still lives in the small Minnesota town where they grew up. Only, Buddy is happily married to someone else from high school and the pair have a newborn son. Even these circumstances are not enough to sway Mavis from attempting to reclaim the missing piece to her happiness.
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Young Adult is the new film from director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) and Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno). They've built their movie around a character who is thoroughly unlikable. In fact, Mavis's selfishness and self-pity are so pervasive, one wonders if the film were a revenge piece by Cody against someone she once knew.
Yet it's this lack of empathy for the main character that separates Young Adult from most modern comedies. We root for Mavis to continue in her quest to reclaim Buddy as her own not out of mutual betterment, but because her awkward failures are painfully funny, and we marvel at just how low one person's morals and self-respect can sink. Young Adult is schadenfreude at the cinema.
Most actresses would be swallowed up by the cruelty and spite of Mavis, but Theron isn't a typical actress. She successfully tackled an unsympathetic woman in 2003's Monster, the true-to-life story of prostitute-turned serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The role won Theron an Oscar, as many noted the model-actresses' willingness to "look ugly" for the part. Mavis is the reverse, with an attractive exterior masking the ugliness inside.
Theron is even more fearless in her depiction of Mavis than Wuornos, plunging into some deep psychological waters of a broken woman beyond repair.
Credit Diablo for not nudging Mavis along on a journey of self-discovery. Mavis is trapped in arrested development. The only one who understands her is Matt Freehauf, played by Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille) in a moving performance every bit the equal of Theron's, who has issues of his own.
Matt was a bullied high school nerd left crippled and scarred by a vicious attack. Matt also is the film's protagonist. Like Mavis, he's in a state of perpetual youth, living with his sister and spending most of his spare time building custom action figures. Matt is single, wise, and emotionally vulnerable, and while Mavis was hardly aware of him in high school -- even though his locker was next to hers -- their emotional burdens bring them together. When she returns to town, she needs a drinking buddy and a confidant, and he likes the attention of an attractive woman. They feed off of each other, with Matt remarking that guys like him are attracted to women like her.
During one of their boozefests, she confides in Matt her plans to steal Buddy away from his wife and son. Matt warns her against it, but alcohol and ego won't allow her to stray from her course. Making her plans of conquest all the more pathetic is the fact Buddy is a likable guy, though nothing special by now. His wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), is cute, funny, sweet, and even plays drums in an all-girl rock cover band. Buddy loves her deeply and Mavis has no chance at stealing him away, which makes her attempts all the more desperate.
Even her parents, played by Jill Eikenberry and Richard Bekins, are unaware of how far their daughter has fallen. They see Mavis at a crossroads rather than in a crisis, and offer her no support.
Diablo writes a smart, honest script that deals in depth and not stereotypes. It's a refreshing change of pace for a comedy to be so dark and utterly unconcerned with cinema conventions, including an irredeemable lead character. Diablo's script isn't as precious and self-aware as Juno, a sitcom with quirky characters masquerading as a feature film. She and Reitman also make a strong pair: her talent for dialogue, his talent for blending honest comedy and drama, which he handled so deftly in Up in the Air.
Young Adult isn't purely for laughs -- though there are funny lines and situations throughout. This is tragedy masquerading as comedy.
It's painfully honest and emotionally true and none of it is pretty.
Directed by Jason Reitman. Written by Diablo Cody. A Paramount Pictures release, playing at Rave Franklin Park and Levis Commons. Rated R for vulgar language, brief nudity, sexual situations, and adult themes. Running time: 94 minutes.
Critic's rating: * * * *
Mavis .......... Charlize Theron
Matt ........... Patton Oswalt
Buddy .......... Patrick Wilson
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.