Written by Diablo Cody (Juno, United States of Tara), Young Adult is this holiday season’s tribute to middle-aged dysfunction. Teaming up again with director Jason Reitman, who directed Juno, as well as Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air, Cody offers a story that defies genre and whose more serious themes may catch audiences off-guard.
The “young adult” of the film’s title is Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a 37-year-old, alcoholic ghostwriter of a young adult book series that is about to fold. Mavis is a sort of noir version of Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, where instead of a sleek, professional New Yorker, Mavis is a hot Minnesotan mess. Having traded in the martinis for straight bourbon a long time ago, Mavis spends her mornings at her laptop, typing out a new novel in a hung-over fog. When evening comes she hits the town, after transforming herself into a designer-brand bombshell, complete with perfect nails and styled blonde hairpiece.
An email announcing the birth of a newborn to her now-married high school sweetheart throws Mavis into a mid-life crisis. Convinced that Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) must be rescued from his boring, small town life of marriage and fatherhood, Mavis travels back to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, to reclaim her old flame. Along the way, she bumps into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who is amused that she doesn’t remember him, despite the fact that his locker had been right next to hers all through high school.
It’s only when Mavis notices Matt’s forearm crutch that she can place him: in high school he had been known as “the hate-crime guy,” a name he earned after suffering a very severe beating at the hands of homophobic jocks. When Mavis confides in Matt regarding her husband-stealing scheme, the pudgy figurine-painter is unable to resist the attentions of such a beautiful disaster of a woman.
Charlize Theron ensures that viewers can recognize Mavis’s leering, lip-curling ilk, but everyone knows that Theron can act. The real surprise here is Patton Oswalt’s brilliant ability to move seamlessly from funny quips to heart-rending emotion. There are moments when one can truly feel the bitter despair Oswalt’s character still carries with him, even a couple of decades after his difficult high school years. The fact that Mavis has had every advantage Matt has not — beauty, popularity, physical mobility — makes Mavis’s decay all the more striking.
As we know from the reality shows that make up the background noise of Mavis’s conscious and unconscious existence, in American society, women of all ages are presented with the message that their value is determined by their fashion sense. Anyone who wears above a size 4 is a “nobody.” Men are nothing but unwitting prizes to be achieved in a never-ending competition with other women. These are the lessons Mavis has learned, and in our own “mean girl” culture, she herself is a walking, drinking “teachable moment”: her conceited, backbiting behavior, when carried into adulthood, is far from glamorous.
Still, we do get one positive model of adult womanhood in this film. Buddy Slade’s wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) steadfastly refuses to see Mavis as an enemy, in something reminiscent of the Scarlett O’Hara / Melanie Hamilton dynamic of Gone with the Wind. This is much to Mavis’s annoyance. Though Beth gets little screen-time, it’s worth noting that she is no mousy-housewife stereotype. She adores her new baby, but she also plays drums in a garage band and spends evenings out with friends. In her Breeders t-shirt and with her unfussy good looks, she’s an appealing image of what a woman raised in the grunge-loving, anti-materialistic early nineties might look like today. She’s the polar opposite of Mavis’s over-decorated diva, sneering through her daily mani-pedi. It’s a subtle reminder that not too long ago, before Paris Hilton and Sex and the City and toy dogs named after clothing lines, young American women had some very different role models, not a few of whom valued their minds over their Manolos.
Some audiences may be put off by Young Adult’s refusal to conform perfectly to genre. Promoted as a comedy, the film nevertheless marches boldly into solidly dramatic territory. The movie is funny, no doubt, but the problems of Mavis and Matt are too real to be laughed away, and the film offers some serious, and sometimes seriously uncomfortable, scenes that would seem to be more at home in a straight drama.
It’s unfortunate that the Hollywood promotional machine is so determined to shove every story put on film into a neat genre like comedy, drama, or horror, because Cody’s works rarely fit.
This was clear from the beginning with Juno, definitely a comedy, but one about an issue so certifiably unfunny as teen pregnancy. Cody’s second film, Jennifer’s Body, was unfairly panned by critics who likely expected the typical high-school horror flick in which young girls with low I.Q.s flounce around like does until their inevitable slice-up by a male psycho in a clever mask. Instead the film presented audiences with a murderess who stalked young men. Between Megan Fox’s and Amanda Seyfried’s characters, it offered an intriguing female dynamic that must have seemed out of place in a genre in which female characters typically do little more than squeal.
Candy Girl, Cody’s book about her time working as a stripper (also in Minnesota ), induces riotous chortling, but at the end one is left with an odd mix of both admiration and pity for Cody’s scantily-clad subjects. Of all Cody’s narratives, this is the one that feels most similar to Young Adult.
One thing’s for certain: Cody sees (and writes) life in a more complex way than Hollywood can sometimes bear. Still, she can draw out the humor in poignant themes like sex work, teen pregnancy, personality disorder (as in United States of Tara), and now, alcoholic narcissism – without emptying them of weight. It’s quite the feat, and one that few screenwriters working today can manage.
FINAL VERDICT: Young Adult knocks viewers out of their comfort zones with cringe-worthy comedy and stellar performances from Theron and Oswalt. The film’s main character may not learn much from her delusional quest, but her audience will.