Young Adult re-teams writer Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman for a darkly comic tale about immaturity with Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt leading the strong, if slightly vapid, character study.
Diablo Cody has made a name for herself as a writer of adolescence. Known to many for her quick-witted and pun-laden dialogue, both of her films were squarely about the high school condition. Juno, her Oscar-winning screenplay, launched her and director Jason Reitman into orbit. Her follow up (and Reitman-less) Jennifer’s Body stayed the sophomoric course but took a turn towards the ironically trashy and cult horror genre. Whereas Juno took an abnormal look at high school culture to dwell on the highs and lows of the period, Jennifer’s Body crashed and burned, never hitting the mark she wanted.
Some may attribute that to the lack of direction from Jason Reitman and those who believe that will have a stronger case after seeing Young Adult. A meta-movie of sorts for Cody, it still revolves around adolescent culture only this time it’s from a past perspective. She’s questioning her own obsession with high school, while also looking to move beyond her obvious crutch. Whether or not she does, of course, remains to be seen. But aside from the obvious parallels to Cody’s own life, Young Adult is a character study of maturity flipped on its ear.
Charlize Theron steals the show as Mavis Gary living in the “big city” of Minneapolis as a ghost writer of a formerly popular adolescent book series. Recently divorced and living in squalor, she receives an e-mail announcement of her high school sweetheart’s new baby. She suddenly realizes that he’s “the one” and goes back to her small town in Minnesota to find her true love.
If that sounds a bit nutty, that’s precisely the point. If there’s any major flaw with the film it’s that it’s that it essentially takes off running and gives us little insight into who Mavis really is and the audience is left playing catch up. But since she’s clearly on a doomed adventure from the start, what insight is really needed into madness?
Once home she crosses paths with an old classmate, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who was severely beaten in high school by the jocks for being gay. Only he’s straight and now needs crutches to walk. They strike up a friendship and Matt is soon the voice of reason repeatedly telling her how insane her plan to win back Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) is, not to mention that he’s happily married with a newborn baby. But nothing can stop Mavis who becomes more and more detached from the reality around her.
It’s a film that explores the classic return-to-small town trope, only this time Mavis is a minor celebrity and miserable. To put it bluntly, she’s a complete mess and alcoholic. Instead of looking towards the future she’s stuck looking at the past. However, she’s not questioning about how her past as made her the person she is (as Cody seems to be doing) but rather she’s convinced that those were her glory days (as many are wont to do).
Reitman’s direction solidifies all of Cody’s ambitions into a claustrophobic look at the unraveling of Mavis. It’s not as rewarding as Up in the Air but whereas George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham was content, while others thought him mad, Charlize Theron’s Mavis is clearly mad, but by escaping her small town for the city she’s seen as a huge success. It’s a film that may be hard to digest on first viewing since it’s plot is as old as the medium, rather its success lies within its characters who always keep you second guessing their next move. It will leave many feeling unsettled but unable to forget.
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