We all know those people who are never going to grow up or evolve past high school. They’ve become fodder for movies and television, traditionally taking the form of the high school jock whose best days were in high school (see: Al Bundy from Married with Children). As well as they serve as a punchline, that joke wouldn’t work unless there really were people like that. Young Adult takes a more dry and bitter approach to the idea, with a character study of a woman whose best days were clearly her high school days, despite her own dislike for the town where she went to school – a dislike that has become self-resentment for everything her life was and is.
The figure in question is Mavis Gary, a young adult author who is brilliantly brought to life by Charlize Theron. Theron is the perfect actress to play Mavis – a gorgeous actress who isn’t afraid to sacrifice that beauty when a role calls for it, which Mavis definitely does. Mavis is pretty, with a beauty that is sometimes showcased as she attempts to flaunt her looks, but most of the film it’s a subdued beauty that has to take a back seat to the alcoholic lifestyle Mavis leads. Theron isn’t afraid to toss on sweats and a constantly hung-over look as she surrounds herself with Mavis’s disaffected narcissism. That’s not to say that Mavis is a ditzy stereotype – far from it, in fact, and Theron often adds gravity to the character in scenes where Mavis doesn’t say a word. The part requires a complex approach and Theron proves to be a solid choice in playing the part.
You see, Mavis isn’t ditzy, just single-minded. Her best days were in high school and she continues to carry that young adult mentality throughout her life, which is why she’s a good choice to write young adult, “Sweet Valley High” style novels. That mentality gets the best of her, however, when Mavis receives an e-mail announcing the arrival of her high school beau’s new baby. She decides the e-mail indicates that she’s still part of his “inner circle” and that he secretly wants the life they should have had together. Mavis tosses her clothes (and her purse dog) into a bag and heads back to rekindle the lost love she once had with a man who is now married with a child. Appropriately for the character, Mavis sees nothing wrong with this, but it’s the perfect example of the sort of high school drama the character continues to be focused on. In high school, it’s absolutely normal for a girl to connive and plot to win back a lost love. The fact that there are now marriage vows and a little one to worry about doesn’t even enter Mavis’s stratosphere.
While Mavis doesn’t see the problem with her plot, a chance encounter with a geek from her high school, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), gives the movie a voice of conscience. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t fall into the cliché where all high school geeks have grown up to become successful at a level we can all be jealous of. Matt gets by, working largely as an accountant in the same small town he grew up in. While Mavis carries the attitude and mentality of a high school player, Matt carries the scars that remind us all that our youth is not without its own price. In Matt’s case, he was a victim of a “hate crime,” beaten much like Matthew Shepard, only Matt lived and isn’t actually gay. The role is an equally complex and meaty part, and Oswalt delivers a nice mix of comedy and emotional gravity, making me wish he’d take on more serious parts like this in the future. He’s an incredibly funny comedian, but Young Adult shows that he can carry the serious side of things as well.
The story here is fascinating to watch. Mavis is presented from the beginning as a superficial, self-absorbed writer, and while those traits largely remain true throughout the narrative, there is a secret side to the character and her story that unfolds over the course of the movie. Not since Falling Down has it been so compelling to witness a character’s story unfold, contrasting against expectations. This is Diablo Cody’s best script to date, featuring some lovely complexities for the characters and removing the stylized dialog that annoyed some viewers of Juno. Director Jason Reitman brings the script to life through his vision, and frequently it’s the scenes where more is said with the camera and the actor’s expression than with words that stick out to the viewer. The only downside to Reitman’s direction is that the story fits thematically with his past few films, particularly Up in the Air. For fans of Reitman, that’s good news, but people who didn’t care for the depressing nature of Reitman’s last project may find this one equally difficult to experience.
Young Adult is a fantastic film – an elaborate character study that is well-framed by Diablo’s script and brought to life through Reitman’s direction and Theron’s memorable performance. It’s an example of just how perfect a project can become when all of the parts line up so well. I certainly hope Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman will collaborate on another project in the future, preferably one that brings Charlize Theron back in some capacity, just not as Mavis Gary, whose story is best left here.