As much as I love Jason Reitman (he’s probably the only director whose films I can tick off on a list) I was strangely non-plussed with Young Adult. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it, laugh a lot and find Charlize Theron utterly compelling as the psychotic prom queen bitch back to reclaim her now middle aged sweetheart. But there was something slightly off about it: perhaps the humour is too dark, perhaps the story is slightly too unsavoury. I usually lap these things up with glee but halfway through I started worrying because I wasn't loving it.
Theron plays Mavis Gary (I can’t say it without hearing the disinterested hotel receptionist zombiesque in my head: “Maaaaaavis Gaaaaaaary”), a 30 something ghost writer of young adult novels who brilliantly captures the voice of her books not just by eavesdropping on teenagers - which she does a lot and it’s hilarious – but by acting like a tween herself, with Living with the Kardashians constantly on repeat, using “gross” and “duh” in her daily dialogue and wearing wildly inappropriate but tonally perfect clothes (Hello Kitty trackies in the day, leather jacket and mini skirt at night). Her skewiff take on life isn’t helped by her dependence on alcohol and the fact that no one around her seems to take her seriously. Living on her own in
(not “the mini apple”), she is shook out of her monotonous world by an email alert from her high school boyfriend and his now wife announcing the birth of their daughter. Instead of seeing this as a sharing of a celebration, Mavis sees it as a desperate appeal for help from Buddy (Patrick Wilson) and so abruptly sets off to her old hometown of Mercury, Minnesota to rescue him for the trappings of marriage and fatherhood. The town is as frozen in the past as she is, with the majority of her school mates now settled in the town either dismayed by her re-appearance or positively thrilled. One such is Matt (comedian Patton Oswalt) who adored Mavis at school, but whom she only remembers as “the hate crime guy” after he was severely beaten by a group of jocks who thought he was gay – he is left with a permanent limp. She lets him in on her plan to win back Buddy but even his home truths don’t stop her from making a fool out of herself flirting with him at family get togethers she perceives as dates, and the slightly dumb (we’ll say naive) Buddy hasn’t got a clue what she’s up to, until a chaotic and explosive climax at the end of the film at the new baby’s naming ceremony – it’s a certain wriggle your hands together uncomfortable showdown, all the more devastating as it unravels one of the hidden truths about Mavis’s past (there’s a brilliantly timed moment as well with some drums). Minneapolis
A note before I hash it out: the trailer is just too cool for school. It might almost be better than the film itself. At least with Reitman/Cody you're always guaranteed a soundtrack that is so edgy it's hip and so hip it's obscure and so obscure it must be hip. They even incorporate it into the script with Mavis digging out her old mix tape (an actual cassette tape) to listen to on the road trip back home (it's a bitterly poignant moment when she goes to see Buddy's wife's band and they cover "her and Buddy's song" - Theron at her best).
There’s really a lot to like with some great little scenes that delight at the time and make you grin in memory. Diablo Cody’s script for the most part is flawless: she has the actions, speak and importantly mood of the piece exactly right. Theron runs with it, creating a character so horrendous (she says the most awful things at the most awful times) but so pathetic it’s difficult not to stop thinking about her, even if caring is too strong a reaction. It’s tragic that no one will listen to her: her parents' dismissive laugh as she tells them she thinks she’s an alcoholic; her moment of clarity at the end when she realises her terrible behaviour only for Matt’s sister who dreamt of being her in high school telling her to never change. It’s great there’s no happy ending and no redemption for Mavis – I think that’s a trait that rings true in all of Reitman and Cody’s work - but there were moments where it became too contrived. When she sleeps with Matt for instance – OK, she doesn’t live happily ever after with him, but there was no need to even go there. And a lot of it felt episodic too – waiting for the next phonecall from Buddy so she can hatch her next destructive plan. I wish it had flowed better, and we had more of a sense of who Mavis was – her childish impulses and view of the world made it difficult to really get her. Only in her emotional speech at the end do we truly see the real Mavis, and then suddenly it’s gone again.
There’s been a lot written about this film being cruelly overlooked during awards season, but I can see why. Theron is brilliant (I could watch her snort all day - amazing) but ultimately a caricature, though she plays it perfect – it’s how she’s written which is the problem. I’m being overly harsh as I love both Reitman and Cody, but Juno is better – it makes you emote, whereas Young Adult despite its sharp and painfully witty slices of truth leaves you cold. You won’t feel sorry for Mavis Gary, and you won’t feel hopeful for her either. But absolutely go and see it, as it’s full of worthy performances and is better than most other stuff out there at the moment. I shall wait eagerly for Reitman to announce his next project (already well on board for Cody’s Sweet Valley High).