There are certain immutable facts in this world. Gravity keeps us from floating off into space, we need to breathe air, and nobody gets out of High School unscarred. The high school social system was beautifully deconstructed in Mean Girls, back when Lindsay Lohan’s name appeared on marquees instead of police blotters and court documents. But in every school there were a few golden boys and girls who seemed to live charmed lives – and often made life hell for everyone else.
In Young Adult, we’re introduced to one of those golden girls. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) was looked up to by most everyone in high school. Mavis, though, has suffered a cruel fate. She hasn’t grown out of her high school persona. She is Polly Pan, the girl who never grew up.
She’s been channeling that persona as the ghostwriter of a long-running Young Adult series (“Y.A. as we say in the business,” she proudly says). While people in her hometown think she’s a successful author, in reality the series is no longer selling. Mavis is dealing with writer’s block as she tries to complete what will be the final book. Her personal life isn’t great, either. She’s 37, divorced, and has a serious drinking problem.
When she receives a birth announcement from her high school flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson, Watchmen, Little Children) and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser, the Twilight series, Grey’s Anatomy), Mavis believes she’s found the answer to fill the void in her life. Like the plot of a romance book and movie, she’ll return to her hometown, rekindle her love affair with Buddy, and then they’ll run off to Minneapolis together. “This stuff really happens,” Mavis explains, “Haven’t you seen The Graduate?”
The person she explains this to Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), the first person she connects with when she returns home. He still carries his own scars from high school, though they are physical. A group of jocks beat him nearly to death in his senior year when they thought he was gay. When Matt hears Mavis’s plan, he is the voice of reason, telling her to go home and seek professional help. But Mavis, the ultimate narcissist, won’t be dissuaded, even when Matt mentions Buddy’s new baby. She dismisses that with a casual “We all have baggage.”
Theron does her best work in this movie since her Academy Award-winning role in Monster. For that role, she underwent a transformation to become physically ugly. If anything, Mavis is a harder role, since she remains outwardly beautiful. It is her spirit that has turned ugly. Theron dives into the deeply flawed, unlikable character and the result keeps the audience riveted, knowing she’s a train headed for a spectacular wreck.
Oswalt is wonderful as Matt – lucid, aware, but still caught up in his unrequited love of Mavis from their high school days. The strong cast, including Wilson, Reaser, and Jill Eikenberry (L.A. Law) as Hedda, Mavis’s mom, has to establish normality in their small town lives for Theron to play against. They do it with subtlety and realism. You could drive to any small town in the country and find people just like their characters.
One exceptional facet to the movie is the realistic portrayal of alcoholism. Mavis pours down whiskey like it’s water, yet she maintains the appearance of control. That lasts until she awakens in bed the next morning still in her clothes, with an eye-blurring hangover and flannel in her mouth that can only be cut through by chugging Diet Coke.
Diablo Cody’s screenplay takes the standard elements of a romantic comedy and skewers them. The behavior we may have accepted as sweet or touching in other films is exposed in Young Adult as delusional. When you find out the reason for Mavis’s stunted emotional growth, you do finally feel some understanding of her. Mavis, though, is denied that understand.
Jason Reitman is building an incredible body of good work (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air), and Young Adult adds to it. His movies are carefully-observed slices of life that mine both comedy and understanding from the characters.
And that is what Young Adult is, a finely-etched, sharply-written character study. Mavis is a person who is easy to dislike, but she is hard to forget.