Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Change Isn't Inevitable - "Young Adult" Review

It has almost become a cliché when discussing high-school reunions to express enthusiasm over getting a chance to catch up with the "popular" crowd just to see how badly their lives have gotten.  To get a cursory glimpse at pain in the life of someone that once wielded such social power can be a rejuvenating and validating experience.

Young Adult operates in the same manner, but instead of providing just a brief glimpse into the life of a former high-school "royalty" it probes deep into the life of someone who hasn't quite let go of her glory days.  It presents a portrait of a woman who may be a lot of things, but an adult isn't one of them.

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) seems to have it all together, at least initially.  She isn't only jaw-droppingly attractive but she also seems to have found a sort of fame in ghost writing a popular young adult series of books about teen life.  It isn't until Young Adult reveals a glimpse of Mavis's Minneapolis apartment that the audience gets a real sense that something might be wrong with Mavis.

The real Mavis lives alone, her apartment is a disaster, her diet much worse, and her choice in television programming equally disgusting; the sound of Keeping Up With the Kardashians continuously fills her apartment.  It is soon made apparent that her book, whose ideas she lifts off of teenage conversations overheard in various fast food restaurants, is being cancelled.

For Mavis, a former high-school beauty queen of Mercury, Minnesota, she has travelled well past her prime and she continues to refuse to grow up and move onward.  This is evident not only in her aforementioned living conditions, but in the company she keeps, the food she eats (fast food exclusively), and the clothing she wears (sweatpants and Hello Kitty! t-shirts).  It is no mistake that Mavis wears giant rose-tinted glasses throughout Young Adult.

So when she receives what she believes to be an exclusive email from her former high-school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), about the birth of his child she sees this as an opportunity to win him back.  On a whim she decides to pack up her little dog and hightail it back to her hometown of Mercury.  Mavis thinks that fate meant to have her and Buddy together and that the child she has just discovered should have been and could have been hers.

Will she be successful?  The answer is pretty apparent right from the get-go: no.  Buddy is very happy with his hip wife and unnamed child and the appearance of Mavis only reaffirms this.  What Mavis doesn't realize is that her former town doesn't look up to her anymore; their affection is one of pity not high regard.

Young Adult is an incredibly dark film full of outright dislikable people.  Even Buddy Slade is just so saccharinely sweet that he almost operates as a parody of married suburban life.  It might have been impossible to connect or care for any of the characters in the film if it wasn't for the dominating and brave performance of Charlize Theron.

Mavis isn't a character that the audience is meant to root for, but the specificity and honesty brought to the screen by Theron makes her relatable.  Her quest is downright detestable and instead of rooting for her success the audience is made to care enough to hope that she can make it through this obviously rough chapter of her life.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) has written a smart, subversive, and uncharacteristically subtle script that is fully aware of itself and the distance its main character puts between herself and accessibility.  The audience's way into the script is provided by the touching performance of Patton Oswalt as Matt Freehauf.  Matt was a loser in high-school who was assaulted for being gay, despite not actually being gay, which has left him crippled and unwilling to move forward with his life.

Mavis doesn't remember Matt, despite having a locker right next to his, but slowly develops a reluctant friendship with him.  Matt quickly realizes that Mavis is headed for disaster and does the best he can to question her and prevent the oncoming train wreck.  Unfortunately, Matt still operates similarly to his role in high-school and cannot quite break free from his fondness for the still beautiful Mavis.

There is some truly dark subject matter dealt with in Young Adult but it is buoyed by Jason Reitman's (Juno, Up in the Air) many deft directorial choices.  Reitman has proven himself the master of the intelligent dark comedy in the past and the same is true here in Young Adult.  His style provides a cheerful and energetic tone to the piece that allows it to avoid becoming too meditative or dour.  Instead, the darkness becomes a roller-coaster ride of sorts and manages to maintain its painful comedic edge.

The ending of Young Adult stands out as one of the boldest choices in film this year.  It might initially seem unrewarding and a strange way to end the story of Mavis Gary, but it only serves to reinforce the deep flaws inherent in social society and Mavis's inability to mature.  Some say that change is inevitable, but in Mavis Gary's case change might just be impossible.

3.5 / 4 Reels



  1. Theron gives a terrific performance. She elevates the movie by demonstrating her versatility. She almost makes you feel sympathetic towards this blonde, beautiful and sharp-witted anti-heroine. Oswalt deserves consideration for supporting actor as well. Great review. Check out whenever you get the chance.

  2. Young Adult had its moments - but ultimately unsatisfying. What you you think of Reitman's other films?

  3. "Thank You For Smoking" and "Up in the Air" were amongst my favorites of their respective years. "Juno" is a strong and charming film, but I think the script is a bit overwritten. Obviously, I really enjoyed "Young Adult" and found it quite satisfying. Thanks for reading!