What kind of person lives the dream life of an entire town yet still finds themselves wallowing in misery? Mavis Gary. Mavis is the ghostwriter behind the waning Waverly Prep series of YA books. She's tall, thin, beautiful, successful, and living in the big city of Minneapolis on her own terms. All it takes is an e-mail from her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade announcing the birth of his unnamed baby girl for Mavis to pack up her bags for a stay in her old hometown of Mercury, MN. She will free him from the clutches of his new wife Beth and nothing anyone else says will stop her. Young Adult marks the second collaboration between Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, United States of Tara) and Academy Award-nominated director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) and it is a welcome return to form. Armed with a screenplay featuring less punny dialogue but just as much structure, Reitman manages to bring Cody's vision of a depressed, anxiety-riddled, drunken young adult author to life in a big way.
Young Adult is not a film that will reaffirm your positive beliefs about life and give you hope for the future. No. This is the film that will make you realize that some people really are so self-absorbed that they don't care what harm they do to other people. It's the film that expresses your worst fears about moving back to your hometown and dealing with people who will never understand what you've done with your life. It is a brutally dark comedy you have to laugh at to stop yourself from crying.
Diablo Cody provides a very nuanced screenplay that will grow in appreciation for years to come. Every single thing Mavis does--consciously or unconsciously, in the past or in the present--doesn't so much build to a back-to-back-to-back triple climax as decay and rot away any semblance of normalcy in Mavis. She is not a well woman. She's constantly drinking Diet Coke or hard liquor. She cannot work without first putting focus on her appearance--manicures, pedicures, facials, high-end wardrobe, hair extensions. Otherwise, she stumbles around in a ratty Hello Kitty t-shirt and gray sweatpants, accomplishing absolutely nothing with her life.
Charlize Theron brings a horrible character to life in a way that forces the audience to confront how they digest protagonists. In a less cynical comedy, Mavis would unquestionably be our hero. She really would be saving Buddy from a loveless marriage and find a way to take the publishing world by storm with a brilliant roman a clef novel about her experience doing so. This is not that film and Theron nails it.
You're drawn to Mavis even as she abuses Buddy (Patrick Wilson, a cipher for the perfect husband and father), high school classmate Matt Freehouf (Patton Oswalt playing a less popular version of Mavis, matching her every success with a genuine misfortune), and anyone who steps in her path. Even when Mavis does something that would typically arouse sympathy, Theron provides a bitter subtext that forces you to dislike the only central figure of the film. It's a bold and brilliant take-down of audience expectations. There is no chance of redemption for Theron's Mavis: only new targets for her warped view of reality.
The other characters envisioned by Diablo Cody act as a compartmentalization of Mavis' own personality traits. Buddy is her romantic side--kind, sweet, and capable of being a good person. Matt is her pain and inadequacy--crippled, depressed, hated for things beyond his control. Even random characters like a hotel desk clerk (duty, contractual obligations) and a bookseller (notoriety, success) are projections of Mavis' life that she cannot bring herself to face. She forms a hollow shell of Diet Coke and Maker's Mark to avoid confronting her own demons. When the pressure of revisiting Mercury starts to get to her, the projections fade and true personalities come to life. Even when we're warned of exactly what will happen, we keep rooting for Mavis to pull herself together and get with the program. She can't without help but no one can help her if she can't grasp reality.
Reitman keeps Young Adult moving at a fast pace. Important silent actions are held just long enough to let the audience know something important just happened without laboring over their impact. Reitman wisely uses few cuts in the middle of a dialog-heavy scene, letting the cast be the reason to keep watching and not some clever editing tricks to fix pacing issues. Any semblance of slick production melts into the picture like an ice cube Mavis would pluck out of her whiskey to ensure maximum potency.
Young Adult is a brilliantly executed film from all involved parties. It reads closer to Thank You For Smoking than Juno, though any connection to either comedy from Reitman or Cody is superficial, at best. It's been a long time since a great film has come along that refuses to play into any Hollywood cliches about how an anti-hero must be treated. It feels so bad that it must be good for you.
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