Thirty-seven-year-old Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) lives in Minneapolis and ghostwrites a series of young adult novels about a prep school. Although on the surface she lives a fairly successful life: she lives in an upscale (if slightly sterile) high-rise apartment, has a cute dog for a companion, and drives a mini-cooper, it’s clear, from the start, that she’s stuck in some sort of a rut. When her high school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson) sends her a picture of his new baby, she gets it into her mind that it’s a cry for help and decides to go back to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota to steal him away from his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser).
Directed by Jason Reitman with an absolutely searing script by Diablo Cody (viewers wary of Cody’s Juno-esque verbal shenanigans need not worry: she’s much more toned down here), Young Adult challenges most expectations viewers have about movies like this: the protagonist is not likable in the least, humans do not grow/change/evolve, and there is no epiphany. Young Adult is brilliant, darkly funny, and deeply unsettling.
It is Cody and Reitman’s sly subversion of viewer’s expectations that make this film work as well as it does: viewers expect the hotshot from the city to be humbled by the small-town folk, and when that doesn’t happen, well–that’s when things get interesting. This willingness to subvert what is expected, as well as their ability to infuse the film with an unparalleled generational identity make this movie so inherently watchable. Everything from the music used (The Replacements, obviously, as well as The Breeders and Teenage Fanclub–whose song “The Concept” serves as a sort of ambiguous anthem for both Mavis and the film as a whole) to the fashion to the reminiscing the characters do–invokes a sort of nostalgia specific to Generation X. All of this nostalgia, of course, plays into Mavis’s inability to let go of her own adolescence–and the past.
Of course, the characters (and the actors who inhabit them) help to propel Young Adult into much more memorable territory. Theron is absolutely terrifying as the cruel and obliviously selfish Mavis. She manages to be both beautiful and ugly, and while the film could make her an absolute villain, it doesn’t. Buddy is perfectly nice: a little bland and more than a little uncool. Surprisingly, it is Patton Oswalt as Matt, a former classmate who was left permanently injured after being beaten by some of Mavis’s high school classmates, who most consistently steals scenes. It is his acerbic wit and wry observations about Mavis’s character that infuse humor into the film, elevating it from something simply darkly uncomfortable to something with real power and resonance.
Highly, highly recommended. This is the kind of brilliant dark comedy that is deserving of accolades. Worth the theater ticket, to be sure.