Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Diablo Cody (screenplay)
Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson and Collette Wolf
Mavis Gary is one of the most fully realized movie characters in recent memory, and certainly of 2011. In the span of Young Adult’s 90 minutes, Diablo Cody’s writing, Jason Reitman’s directing and Charlize Theron’s acting fuse together seamlessly to show us her demented, delusional inner workings.
In an early scene, Mavis is going to meet up with an old flame from high school named Buddy (Patrick Wilson). She enters this small town bar with a tight, skimpy black outfit. As she looks around the bar, judging every other patron there, the camera shifts to a POV shot as if asking us to judge them too. When the waiter comes to her table, she rudely tells him to take back the silverware and bring her a drink. Buddy enters, and she lights up with a grotesque fakeness that she dons almost as often as her snide glare.
Young Adult is a very uncomfortable movie, and as a result will likely alienate any audience expecting more light-heated, snarky whimsy. Cody’s screenplay is much more mature than Juno, her previous collaboration with Reitman. It is staked a much darker territory, with the laughs nowhere near as easily identifiable from the squirms.
Mavis is a ghost writer for a young adult book series, and her inflated sense of self has her returning to the small town of Mercury, Minnesota from her “big living” in Minneapolis after her divorce. The movie’s unadorned visual style completely strips that sense of self away from her, and places her in the same light as everyone else even though she’s better dressed and prettier. Many of them view her as royalty or a mysterious force of nature they couldn’t possibly understand.
Appearances, as they almost always are, prove to be very deceiving. At the core of Young Adult is not Mavis’ demented attempt to win back Buddy from his “loser” married life with a newborn kid. This is a movie about what it means to be happy, a subject Reitman’s Up in the Air tackled with a decidedly more charming protagonist. People wanted George Clooney to be happy in that movie, though.
Thanks to Cody’s pitch-black screenplay, by far her best writing effort to date, feelings about Mavis will likely be much more complicated. Young Adult shows both her and Reitman expanding into much darker territory. By placing such an unlikeable, nauseating character at the center of this film, they have proven themselves a versatile, gifted writer/director combo.
Theron has obviously made quite a career exploring such sinister territory in films like Monster and North Country, but what makes Mavis different is that not only is she decidedly wittier, but she garners little to no sympathy at all. There are laughs to be had, like when she tells Buddy they can “beat this thing together” in reference to his marriage, but, as I wrote earlier, this is not Juno. Something is deeply wrong with this woman, as her hair plucking and her sudden, desperate clinging to this past high school love show.
Mavis’ revisiting of her glory days as Prom Queen predictably brings her into contact with a “loser” she ignored from back then. Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) is a Star Wars nerd who brews his own bourbon in his garage. Though he’d typically just make a cameo in this type of movie, he becomes the movie’s second most prominent character. Cody uses him to draw out Mavis’ plan and flesh out its absurdity, and Oswalt creates a very sympathetic character in the process.
Back in those glorious high school days, Matt was brutally beaten by jocks in the woods because they thought he was gay. He’s not, but the incident left him with a permanent limp and a crooked penis. Mavis, in her infinite awfulness, tells him to get over it, but he also ends up drawing out her own wounded humanity by the end, if only temporarily.
Oswalt’s stand-up is full of bits chock-full of comic book and sci-fi references, so it’s fairly easy to see that a character like Matt hits fairly close to home in many ways. His role in Big Fan was similar in tone to what Theron does in terms of delusion, though, and she does that extraordinarily well here. Her extremely expressive eyes are one of the biggest assets she has as an actress; here they are constantly shifting, determining if this is a time for her mask of contempt or one of flirtatious ecstasy. She jealously glares at Buddy’s life with his wife and newborn, simultaneously conveying rage and desperation.
This is one of her best performances because she plays Mavis like she’s written and doesn’t try to give her any added sympathy. What the other characters lack in complexity, Theron makes up for in droves. She locates the desperate core of this character, who ultimately is so pissed off that everyone in Mercury seems content while her success in the city has brought her nothing but bitterness. Mavis is a woman not comfortable in her our skin, though she’s not quite driven to murder because of it like Aileen Wuornos was in Monster.
In the beginning of the movie, Mavis stares at a nearly-blank computer screen that reads “Chapter 1.” Throughout the movie, she narrates what the high school-set novel she’s typing as she draws on it from her own life. This is one of the script’s smartest touches because it allows us to see Mavis warping her own reality while simultaneously showcasing her desire to return to simpler, happier times. She writes that gooey, mindless book a happy ending, temporarily convinced that it means she’ll have one, too.