Mavis Gary is a bitchy, entitled slob stuck in her high school glory days. She is so convinced she is better than the world she left that she’s blinded.
Although in this day and age, what’s wrong with that?
“Young Adult” presents us with a character so unlikeable and progressively horrible that from its first moments it challenges us to even feel pity for this woman. It’s a deliciously intriguing black comedy that considers leaps and bounds about nostalgia, cynicism and happiness in the 21st Century.
Mavis’s (Charlize Theron) goal is to return to her small, hick hometown and win back the love of her high school flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) by breaking up Buddy’s happy marriage and newly formed family.
We’ve maybe heard this story, but you’re wrong if you think she’ll warm to her quaint hometown. You’re wrong if you think she’ll grow up and catch the difference between never leaving home and living in the past. You’re wrong if you think she’ll ultimately fall for the old high school nerd she always ignored. You’re wrong if you even think she’ll leave a better person.
Because you’re wrong is what makes “Young Adult” so right.
Director Jason Reitman has reteamed with screenwriter Diablo Cody since their first collaboration “Juno” won Cody an Oscar. Since then I’ve been a Reitman enthusiast, and “Juno” remains one of my favorite films of the last decade.
Still, the meme-heavy dialogue in “Juno” has sullied the film in a lot of minds recently, and this crowd may be pleased to know “Young Adult” sounds and feels nothing like “Juno.” The heart-warming sensation is gone, replaced with a comic self-loathing for Mavis Gary.
Theron gives her most fully realized performance since “Monster” as Mavis, fully embracing Mavis’s “don’t-give-a-fuck” attitude and oblivious entitlement. And any presumptions about her character are misleading. Mavis isn’t a “mean girl;” she’s a horrible person.
As she drives back to her small hometown from Minneapolis, she replays a bad ‘90s song on cassette and we sadly and quickly realize her whole life is stuck in this nostalgic tape loop.
Her life is so worthless and meaningless as she collapses into bed each evening, wakes up the next morning with a new faceless love interest, downs Maker’s Mark with a Diet Coke chaser and is too lazy to even bring herself to buy a new color ink printer cartridge. Realizing that she’s oblivious to her squalor, her age and lack of importance in this adult world is less funny than it is plain sad. A black comedy that encourages us to cringe and think rather than just poke fun is a rare thing.
Mavis’s condition gets worse. She writes teen novels that are filled with meaningless, self-centered expressions overheard from teenage girls and she subconsciously absorbs them. When Mavis returns home she doesn’t condescend with witty put downs to everyone she meets, but we can sense she’s trying to think of them. And those she does talk with lie and say she’s lucky to have never grown up.
The one person who speaks the truth is Matt Freehauf, wonderfully played by the always clever and sardonic Patton Oswalt. He’s the film’s entry point, and although he is hardly unflawed or desirable as a person, he reads Mavis like one of her teen novels, seeing right through her bullshit and superficiality.
What’s wonderful about Theron and Oswalt’s chemistry is their shared bitterness and practical cynicism. Two of the film’s most interesting, if not entirely organic moments, call this personality trait into question. Matt is a cripple after being beaten back in high school, and he’s never fully recovered physically or mentally. The first scene involves him and a fairly optimistic man in a wheelchair whose life has only improved.
The second moment involves Mavis and Buddy’s wife Beth. She teaches mentally handicapped children who struggle to express emotions. Mavis notices a feeling of neutrality or nothingness is missing from the board.
We know Mavis and Matt are fragile, but we identify with both more than the bland, but healthy, nobodies that make up this town. Is a feeling of indifference really a problem, or is that the most natural emotion of all in the 21st Century?
Reitman and Cody leave us with little finality or closure. Life will go on for these people. Mavis will still be a bad person, but she has begun to think differently, and now so do we.