Mavis Gary wakes up in her bed, fully dressed, with empty bottles of whiskey and wine cluttering the bedside table. The mindless drone of soft-scripted faux-reality TV plays like a hateful hum to which she can safely pass out. Her morning routine seems set in monotony. Stumbling to the bathroom, brushing her teeth while glaring hatefully in the mirror; heading out to the kitchen and chugging a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke; opening a container of cheap dog food and shoving her cute, clingy teacup doggie out on the balcony of her Minneapolis apartment, so she won’t be bothered. She then sits down at her laptop and types the opening lines to a homogenized, bubblegum teen fiction novel. This is Mavis’ life – and she might tell you to go f*** yourself if you have a problem with it.
Young Adult shows us what happens when the Queen-Bee bitch from high school doesn’t grow up when she grows up. It studies Mavis – played with outward vitriolic loathing by Charlize Theron – with caustic wisdom and weathered perspective. She is a whip-smart, alcoholic ghostwriter of a Sweet Valley High-esque young adult book series who long ago abandoned her backwards Minnesota hometown but nevertheless clings to her high school glory days, when catty disdain was more age-appropriate. As the once-popular book series now heads into clearance-shelf mortality, Mavis seems unfazed by her uncertain future – indeed, she confronts the unknown by ignoring it. Hers is a life of to-go box myopia, consisting of laziness, alcoholism, and fast food. Mavis is more than an anti-hero – she’s just “anti.”
In the midst of writing the final installment of the teenybopper Waverly Place series, Mavis becomes distracted by a curious e-vite that turns up in her inbox. It seems Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), Mavis’ high school flame, is celebrating the birth of a new baby girl. Convinced that the arrival of a newborn must mean Buddy throbs with desire to escape married life, Mavis heads back home, determined to rescue him from domestic hell.
The film’s brilliance lies in its acute understanding of both Mavis’ inert hatefulness and the equally inert aww-shucks steadiness of her old hometown. Some of its lifelong residents are certainly happy in the way most traditional cinema might represent the noble simplicity of Middle America, but others view Mavis with simultaneous snickering judgment and wide-eyed envy. To them, she is a glamorous celebrity, the one who found a form of big-city success they secretly desire. One person capable of seeing through both sides of the bullshit is Matt (Patton Oswalt), another former classmate, who Mavis can only remember as “The Hate Crime Guy.” He suffered a vicious beating back in high school, and his social life never quite recovered. Matt is the person with whom Mavis can truly be herself; with everyone else, she proffers a series of fabrications, most of which don’t even serve a purpose. They aren’t really intended for other people, anyway – Mavis uses lies to help elevate her own frail, twisted, terminally wounded self-image.
Theron is absolutely brilliant in this role, one that allows her to unleash a flurry of barbed comic anger on the surface, but requires a deep-seated connection to the pain underneath. Oswalt, too, is pitch-perfect, engendering real empathy without ever asking for it and seeing through Mavis’ brutal exterior while never hiding his clear affection for her. Their dynamic is effortless and true from one beat to the next, and their relationship unfolds in a way that flirts with conventional expectations before ripping them out from under us.
Young Adult functions that way from start to finish, setting up a potentially madcap scenario filled with relationships that could be lifted straight out of a clichéd YA novel, and upending the traditional narrative course at every turn. People simply don’t change so swiftly and tidily as they do in the movies, and how brave that this film tells the story of an essentially static character who only shifts from one stage of unlikability to another. It is so authentic in its portrayal of this particular form of selfish, functional depression that you’d swear it came from someone who’s been there. Indeed, it does: writer Diablo Cody, who won an Oscar for her pop-centric, hyper-colloquial screenplay for Juno and then experienced unprecedented and unwarranted backlash in the aftermath, speaks openly of this script expressing some very personal traits. But the work indicates that she’s had distance to process, separate, and filter those traits into a clear-eyed character study that indicts its central character but doesn’t force a pre-packaged epiphany on her.
So seamless is his work that I haven’t even mentioned director Jason Reitman, who solidifies his standing as one of the industry’s absolute best filmmakers with precise camera movement, loaded subtextual images, and a staggering insight into human frailty. His collaborations with Cody are absolutely revelatory, and with Young Adult they tell a story that is harsh, prickly, and uncompromising. Mavis relishes her past, hates her present, and has no future, but it seems doubtful she was ever truly happy – the depression is now a drug, a crutch, a way of life…the only way Mavis knows how to function.
[notification type=”star”]90/100 ~ AMAZING. Young Adult is painful and true, a perfectly realized tale of wounded narcissism and selfish depression.[/notification]