What are we to make of Young Adult? Clearly, we’re meant to applaud Charlize Theron’s willingness to use her beauty more as a shield than an asset as she plays a thoroughly unlikable character. A onetime high-school heartthrob, she’s fallen into a pitiable state—barely employed as a ghost writer, living an empty existence in the Big City and drowning her self-loathing in alcohol. For a combination of not-entirely-credible reasons she returns to her hick hometown, determined to win back her erstwhile boyfriend (Patrick Wilson), who’s now happily married and the father of a baby girl.
We’re used to seeing movies about men who refuse to grow up. There is admittedly some slight novelty value in a film that trains an unforgiving eye on a female who, at the age of 37, tries to relive the last good period of her life, some twenty years ago when she was the prettiest girl in school.
The problem is that Theron’s character, devised by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, is a human train wreck. She’s so desperate for company that she develops a relationship with a guy she considers a loser (well played by Patton Oswalt) because he’s always available, especially as a drinking companion. He had the locker next to hers in high school, but all she remembers about him is that he was notoriously brutalized by some bullies who thought he was gay.
Like a train wreck, Young Adult is surprisingly compelling, and Theron gives a potent performance. But the film offers no real pleasure and has no resonance, other than a bitter aftertaste. We don’t come away with any deeper understanding of small-town America, middle-class aspirations, or beautiful women whose looks belie their true nature.
Having admired all of Reitman’s previous films, and having always known that Theron is a talented actress, I find this film particularly disheartening