Uncompromising and sharply written, director Jason Reitman’s Young Adult is that rare Hollywood film that isn’t concerned about meeting the expectations of audiences. Focusing on a tragic case of arrested development, this challenging and ultimately rewarding film zeros in, with brutal accuracy, on how easy it is to get bogged down in the past, allowing a traumatic incident to retard our growth rather than learning from the experience and growing because of it.
A never-better Charlize Theron is Mavis Gary, a drop-dead gorgeous woman whose sense of entitlement has developed at a far greater rate than any sense of humility she might have ever possessed. Having left the tiny burg of Mercury, Minn., in the dust, she now lives in the “big city” – effectively lampooned in the film’s first shot – Minneapolis, and seemingly has the world at her feet, at least in the minds of her peers she’s left behind. In reality, Mavis’ world is falling apart. With a failed first marriage in her past and unemployment looming because the series of teen books she ghost writes has been canceled, she decides to return to Mercury where she’s still regarded as a big fish in that little pond.
Bad enough that she needs to bask in the adulation of her peers, but she sets out to reestablish herself at the top of her long-gone high school heap by reuniting with her ex-boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson). The fact that he has a lovely wife (Elizabeth Reaser) who’s just delivered their first child doesn’t phase her. As she points out, “We all have our baggage.”
Mavis is, as my grandfather used to say, “a piece of work” and it’s to Theron’s credit that she doesn’t shirk from realizing her in all of her nastiness. Equally damaged is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who Mavis identifies as “the hate crime guy” when she runs into him. Beaten and crippled in high school by a group of football players, he basks in the pity he consciously solicits. While he laments the fact he’s stuck in Mercury and his management job, you know he’s secretly happy in the fact that no one expects him to do much with his life.
Screenwriter Diablo Cody was thrust into the spotlight with her Oscar-winning work in Juno. While that script and its characters have been criticized for being too cute for its own good, she proves here that she’s no one-trick pony. You can tell that she was probably on the receiving end of the abuse of a Mavis-type character in high school, as the barbs she throws and the attitude she wears are dead on. However, it is in the creation of her damaged lead and Matt where she really shines. For all of their self-importance and self-pity, Cody casts them as tragic cases, people of vast potential who never had the support they needed to overcome the trials that came their way. She couldn’t have asked for a better pair to bring these to life. Theron and Patton effectively antagonize one another but also recognize themselves in the other.
Cody and Reitman stay true to the story all the way down the line, not providing a false sense of redemption for either of these characters. Mavis, after a show-stopping meltdown and a brief moment of clarity, remains as self-absorbed at the end of her trip as she did at the beginning. With her sole companion at her side, a much-ignored Pomeranian, she hits the road to return to Minneapolis. It is to Cody’s credit that we know she’ll continue to do more damage than good, and to Theron’s that we sympathize with her.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.