A film review by Craig J. Koban December 28, 2011

Rank:  #10

YOUNG ADULT jjjj

2011, R, 93 mins.

 

Mavis Gary: Charlize Theron / Matt Freehauf: Patton Oswalt / Buddy Slade: Patrick Wilson / Beth Slade: Elizabeth Reaser / Hedda Gary: Jill Eikenberry / Jan Mary: Beth Hurt

Film directed by Jason Reitman / Written by Diablo Cody

Mavis Gary was once one of those prototypical prom-queen high school girls that apparently had everything going for her when she was a teenager.  She was attractive, popular, and seemed destined to go far in adulthood.  What Jason Reitman’s YOUNG ADULT ostensibly hones in on is how this once promising young girl never managed to attain the type of notoriety that everyone pinned on her.  If anything, she never really mentally advanced beyond that of a 16-year-old adolescent; she's essentially in a perpetual state of stunted emotional development. 

Now in her late 30’s, Mavis (played by Charlize Theron) is a relative failure in most respects.  She still has her exquisite good looks, but she is a delusional basket case that unhealthily holds on to the past.  She lives in a messy and shabby condo apartment that looks like it has not been cleaned in months lives off of a steady diet of 2L bottles of Diet Coke, alcohol, and fast food meals.  

She is a writer (actually, make that ghost writer) of a crappy series of young adult novels that she has methodically churned out for years and is now on the verge of cancellation due to poor sales.  She was once married, which lead to a nasty break-up, and her only companion and friend is her pint-sized Pomeranian dog that she loves, but mostly neglects.  Worst of all, she is an atrociously immature alcoholic that really seems to have no interest in becoming a mature and adjusted adult: she ekes out her meaningless existence as if her twenties and thirties have never happened. 

Mavis is so pathetically stuck in her teen years that she still carries a disturbing torch for her old high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) who is now happily married and is a proud new father of a baby boy.  She finds this out from an impromptu email that she receives from him, but she instantly sees this as some sort of cry for help on his part.  Embarrassingly misreading her former flame’s email, Mavis decides to leave her big city Minneapolis dwelling to head back home to her small town of Mercury in order to “save” Buddy from his dire “predicament”, mostly because she now sees that they are now destined soul mates that can finally be together. 

Now, if Mavis were not so utterly self-absorbed, inebriated, and exasperatingly unstable then she would probably be able to take a hint that Buddy is very happily married to his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) and is even happier to be a new papa.  Alas, the disturbingly egocentric and juvenile-minded Mavis sees this trip as her last attempt to win him back for good.  While in town she manages to hook up – and later enlist – with an old high school acquaintance named Matt (Patton Oswalt), who was one of those dweeby kids that girls like Mavis in high school largely ignored.  Matt has hit really hard times: he was disabled when an group of homophobic boys brutally beat him up (they thought he was gay) in the early 1990’s and left him barely able to walk.  Matt, much like Mavis, still lives a bit of a recessive lifestyle that clings to youthful pursuits, but he is much more emotionally adjusted than Mavis.  He willingly becomes her drinking buddy when she returns to town, but when he hears of her plans to essentially wreck Buddy’s marriage, he wishes to have no part in a scheme that could go from bad to worse with the drop of a dime. 

 

 

YOUNG ADULT is the first film collaboration between Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, who last teamed up on JUNO, which made my list of the TEN BEST FILMS of 2007 and of the last decade (Cody also won an Oscar for her script).  As far as young adult fiction goes (with JUNO, JENNIFER’S BODY, and now, to an extent, YOUNG ADULT), Cody has the market cornered.  She has an impeccably knack for understanding how her Gen-X characters act and speak, and the one thing that is always a pleasure with her writing is to hear her singularly unique and fresh voice so clearly.  If her last two films established Cody as a colorful and eclectic writer of stylish confidence, then her snappy, go-for-broke, and decidedly more unsettling script for YOUNG ADULT cements her as a screenwriter of consequence.  The film is steeped in a story of adolescence, so to speak, but this time it’s about a woman that can’t depart from it, even nearly two decades afterwards.  Perhaps more than her other films, YOUNG ADULT showcases Cody as a more compellingly cynical, unsettling, and ferociously observant with her targets.  JUNO was in love with its young characters; YOUNG ADULT sort of uncaringly spits on its main adult character that’s still stuck in her youth. 

Of course, the two main performances by Theron and - surprise, surprise! – Oswalt are integral to the film’s success.  It’s easy to perhaps undervalue Theron as an actress of range and skill: she’s achingly beautiful, but is a vanity-free performer that’s not afraid to let herself look like a disheveled social monster.  What’s amazing about her tour de force work here is that she simultaneously manages to create a believably layered and well delineated character that also happens to be an unscrupulously unaware woman when it comes to just about everyone around her.  Mavis just does not really comprehend how her own debilitating neediness has tortuous effects on her targets.  The genius of Theron’s performance is that she never goes out of her way to make Mavis a falsely likeable creation: this woman is an uncompromisingly crazy and destructive minded bitch that lacks even a modicum of common sense. 

Since the main character is so loathsomely dislikeable it’s of no surprise that the script offers us a portal into the film’s perverted world through Oswalt’s Matt.  His character is a true victim of life’s cruelty and, somewhat like Mavis, lives in a state of prolonged adolescence (he resides with his sister and likes to reassemble and paint action figures).  Yet, we identify with Matt because he’s fragile and physically damaged, but still holds his head high and is able to call Mavis out for what she is.  Oswalt is so discretely good at playing Matt with a quiet level of genuineness, warmth, and palpable wit.  He’s an effective foil to Theron’s Mavis and just when you think their relationship is heading in one direction, it deceptively goes where we least expect it.  This twisted and unpredictable odd-couple pairing of Oswalt and Theron results in the most surprisingly rewarding relationship presented in a film all year.  

I have not spoken much about Reitman, who after films like THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING, JUNO, UP IN THE AIR, and now YOUNG ADULT is fully emerging as a dramatist/humorist with an uncanny skill for marrying societal pessimism, scathing black comedy, and a fearless willingness to go anywhere with his underlining material.  Like fellow contemporaries Alexander Payne and Noah Baumbach, Reitman is totally at ease with focusing on the unwavering pitilessness of his subjects, never fully letting them off the hook, but not demonizing them to the point where we can’t understand them.  

YOUNG ADULT, much like the recently released THE DESCENDANTS, brazenly pulls no punches with its characters and story.   Mavis Gary is a borderline psychotically repellent human being on so many obvious levels, but the real horror of the film is that she is really just a danger to herself.  She’s a depressingly dismal and largely unsympathetic screen creation, but the story she occupies is, ironically enough, joyously brilliant and compelling to engage in for how it’s steeped in deep and wounded regret and hopeless denial.  Mavis' life is a slow burning train wreck, to be sure, but for as painful as it is to endure, I nonetheless found myself endlessly captivated by it.  

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