Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is having problems with her printer. She pulls out the cartridge and rubs a touch of spit across the contacts before popping it back in. As a result of her efforts, the expected picture of a former flame’s newborn baby ends up coming out distorted… and distorted it shall remain as Mavis packs her bags, ignores the deadlines on her latest young adult novel and takes off from Minneapolis for Mercury, MN, hellbent on saving Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) from his apparent domestic bliss.
As if the title, “Young Adult,” weren’t indication enough that our anti-heroine is severely stuck in her adolescent ways, the brilliantly repetitive opening credits sequence – in which Mavis listens to the same Teenage Fanclub track ad nauseum, and on cassette no less – makes it perfectly clear that the recently divorced Mavis isn’t quite over her high-school heyday. As such, she’s an ideal candidate to ghost-write a series of junky teen books (although she’s quick to correct anyone who calls her a writer; she’s an “author,” and nobody calls Minneapolis “the Mini Apple” either).
How much of this reflects writer Diablo Cody’s own journey from the Minnesota suburbs to acclaim as an author of snappy teen characters and dialogue with “Juno“? That’s really for her to say, though the parallels are striking. Mavis is one serious piece of work, though: an uncompromised bitch as romantic lead, prone to chugging soda and huffing glue with equal nonchalance, toting around a yippie little dog named Dolce (of course) and helping herself to overheard teenage banter in a half-assed effort to appease her editor with the first draft of her last book. Whenever she bonds with then-ignored classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), it’s often over his homemade bourbon and their conversations mostly exist as reciprocal scab-picking – he doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge the delusion inherent to her mission – until they unite in turning their sights against some other loser.
A senior-year assault left Matt with enough literal scars to match Mavis’ psychological damage, but while he’s about as stuck in the past as she is – with his rock band shirts and action figures – he at least has the good sense to realize it. Oswalt’s performance returns him to “Big Fan” territory (although Mavis probably more closely resembles his football fanatic in that film), and it’s a turn of surprisingly acute frustration and resignation from the stand-up comedian that doesn’t succumb easily to a conventional romantic mold. These two are spirits more kindred than either would like to admit, trapped in a small town where fellow alumni dare to be content with their humble lives.
Theron may have de-glammed herself in 2003’s “Monster,” but she walks a far more challenging line here in terms of earning an audience’s sympathy. Mavis knows how to get dolled up for a one-night stand, and she pulls out all the stops for her would-be true love. No amount of make-up can disguise the fact that she’s a self-sabotaging alcoholic with an unfailing superiority complex, a newfound habit of stalking her ex and no long-term job prospects once this series of books/paychecks run out, and Theron plays her every flaw to pitiful perfection. When Mavis finally invites Buddy to run away with her, she implores, “We can beat this thing! Together!” – referring to nothing less than his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) and their infant daughter. Like much of the film, it’s an exceedingly uncomfortable moment that has been carefully positioned between being darkly funny and deeply sad, and those scenes would become unbearably cruel or miserable if it weren’t for such a precise performance.
As for director Jason Reitman, “Young Adult” is a step away from the slick and quirky trappings that defined “Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno” and “Up in the Air.” He shoots the proceedings plainly, allowing the camera to hover in most scenes like a stray witness to Mavis’ mistakes and giving Cody’s characters and writing free rein to control the tone rather than falling back on flourishes glib or twee (although the sporadic appearances of product placement never do quite blend in). That allows a crucial third-act paradigm shift to resonate more effectively than, say, the tidy re-introduction of a suicidal supporting character at a similar point in “Up In The Air.” Cody then decides to end with a bold yet well-justified warping of the standard-issue happy ending, played to perfection by Theron and Collette Wolfe, playing Matt’s little-seen sister. Wolfe and Oswalt were co-stars in “Observe and Report,” and while this writer found her to be an unexpected heartbreaker in that, she simply nails it here.
The film wraps it up a bit hastily after that, falling one dramatic beat short in its rush to have Mavis make her way back into the “real world,” but to be any more specific as to how could be rightfully seen as a disservice. For ninety minutes, “Young Adult” doesn’t flinch from deep-seated scars and long-lasting regret, and it’s only funnier for exploiting and exploring the grand delusions of its utterly pathological, pretty-on-the-outside protagonist. [A-]
“Young Adult” opens on December 9 in limited release and then begins expansion on December 16.