Young Adult

Dir: Jason Reitman, 2011. Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson. Comedy.
Young Adult
2011 was something of a banner year for movies about at least superficially complicated women who happen to be hilarious. Whether in Bridesmaids, the obvious winner here, or in Bad Teacher (at least they tried) there was something refreshing about female characters who managed to stand out from the shrew/slut/"manic pixie dream girl" trifecta of acceptable female archetypes. The best of these and my favorite film of the year incidentally, is Jason Reitman's Young Adult. It's a dark comedy that explores the realities of life for people who have run out of identity options not based around their high school years.

Charlize Theron creates a fantastically entertaining mess of a character to follow in Mavis, a woman whom everyone can see is losing it except her. Mavis ghost writes young adult fiction and lives in a sad apartment in a Minneapolis high rise where she is alternately drunk or hungover, ignoring her beleaguered pooch, and staring expressionless at her TV which is tuned exclusively to the E Network. She is a woman of no discernible trace of self awareness. She is empty and she doesn’t have the slightest understanding of how to fix her life. Her insane lack of regard for anyone who isn't her compels her to head back to her home town, Mercury, and stalk an ex-boyfriend from high school that has recently had a kid with his wife. She’s going to win him back and they’ll live happily ever after, wife and kid be damned. Along the way she meets Matt, a guy from her high school infamous around town for having been subjected to a brutal “gay bashing” while in high school though he isn’t gay, just an outsider, pretty much the total opposite of whatever it is Mavis represents. But both are pretty bitter people and they find a weird solace in each other’s company.

Director Jason Reitman is a shrewd social commentator and while he kind of lost me with Up in the Air’s dicey use of the jobless to prop up a story about George Clooney’s attempt to “connect,” he more than makes up for it with Young Adult. The milieu is similar to the contemporary Midwestern Americana of Juno but the characters exist as more fully rounded creations than anything in Juno. It’s both much more bitter but also sweeter than Juno owing much to the heartbreak that Oswalt and Theron bring to their characters. Perhaps the person most responsible for how well this movie works, though, is screenwriter Diablo Cody, who scales back her reliance on the verbal quirks of overly expressive teenagers for this portrayal of people facing adulthood with a numbingly despressive outlook.  

I’m still perplexed as to how this movie more-or-less sank without a trace. It didn’t receive any Academy Award nominations even though Theron does impressive work creating depth for a character that might otherwise have been a caricature of the “mean girl” variety. Maybe the reason it didn’t go over so well is that Mavis was screwed up in too relatable a way. Holding a mirror up to a generation of Americans without solid financial prospects and an unhealthy addiction to the worst excesses of our popular culture—always indicative of a culture on the decline—may just hit too close to home. Just like Mavis and Matt, though, it might just be better in the short term to play Teenage Fanclub and get really drunk.
Posted by:
Jed Leland
Mar 16, 2012 4:53pm
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