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Young Adult (2011)

December 13, 2011

written by: Diablo Cody
produced by: Jason Reitman, Diablo Cody, Lianne Halfon, Russell Smith & Mason Novick
directed by: Jason Reitman
rating: R (for language and some sexual content)
runtime: 92 min.
U.S. release date: December 9, 2011 (limited) & December 16, 2011 (wide)

“Young Adult” is a film that focuses on what happened to those familiar classmates from high school twenty years after graduation. It looks at the classifications we know so well, from the popular (the gorgeous beauty queen and the dreamy jock) to the overlooked (those fragile wallflowers who worship the beauty queens and the fat geeks who are born loving them), in an uncomfortably honest and quite unsettling manner. We knew them back in the day, yet despite whatever future predictions or condemnations (however you want to look at it) they were given in our senior yearbook, we’re not very surprised by where they’re at in their late thirties. It’s a film that supports my long-standing observation – that there are some people who truly never leave high school.

Falling in the sub-genre of dark comedy, yet stinging with penetrating dramatic heft that leaves a lasting impression long after viewing, “Young Adult” isn’t easy to describe to others. It certainly generates laughs, mainly out of recognizable portrayals and pathetic lifestyles, but its raw and blunt characterizations, make it a challenging watch at times.

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a divorced ghost writer of a line of Young Adult novels (voiced with an acerbic Sweet Valley High), who at 39 years old, may or may not realize that her life has already peaked. She’s not adult or sober (literally and figuratively) enough to see that this is all her doing. She lives in a dumpy Minneapolis condo, far from her Podunk hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, with her neglected Pomeranian and red and white Mini. Her days are an endless cycle of waking up in her clothes with a hangover haze, chugging a nearby 2 liter of Diet Coke, with the atmospheric aural enhancement of random reality TV.  Then, her eventual post is staring at her mocking computer screen in her half-hearted attempt to finish off the final novel in her recently-cancelled series.

In wavering between writer’s block and procrastination, she stumbles upon an email that rattles  her into the inescapable world of the here-and-now. It’s a birth announcement from her old boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), attached with a cute baby picture of his newborn. Rather than be excited for him, she is disturbed and alarmingly motivated. She drives up to Mercury to rescue her beau from his happy life with wife (Elizabeth Reeser, the “Twilight” movies) and child, convinced he’s miserable and must still carry the same torch she holds for him. Just like the high school days, Mavis still knows how to work her best assets in order to get her way. It may take a little more cosmetic assistance to cover up her worn features and her nervous hair pulling habit, but the clueless yet determined girl is on a mission.

Little does she know how transparent and desperate she appears, and the only one who calls Mavis out on her deluded behavior is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate she doesn’t remember. It takes several clues from Matt to remind her that he was the fat kid who was beaten up for being gay (even though he wasn’t) and that his locker was right next to hers for four years and not once did she utter a word to him. Now physically challenged, Matt lives with his nebbish sister (Colette Wolfe), where he brews bourbon and meticulously customizes action figures in his garage. Unlike Mavis, he is aware of who he is and his limitations (it comes with years of being bullied and ignored), and immediately knows her number. Knowing there’s no stopping her, Matt resigns to unexpectedly becoming her drinking partner while she’s in town, and the two become the most unlikely pair. Despite this unpredictable connection, she still shows utter disdain for Matt, denying all the bluffs he calls her on, while he remains cynical toward any notion that Mavis could be anything other than callous, tactless, and self-centered.

For his fourth film, director Jason Reitman  (“Thank You for Smoking” and “Up in the Air”) reunites with his Oscar-winning screenwriter, Diablo Cody (“Juno”) to focus on a protagonist that would be an ideal role for any actress. This isn’t the first film that has an attractive thirtysomething white female unleash her inner ugliness (there’s the recent “Bad Teacher”) to everyone but herself, but it certainly is the most fully-realized. While the film is being marketed as a comedy (understandably playing to its broad strengths), there’s much more to take in here then a stream of laughs.

Much is being made about how unlikable Mavis Gary is, which supposedly makes the film borderline unwatchable. Such an immature perception is clearly obtuse. I can fill the rest of this paragraph with unlikable yet highly-watchable characters in cinema – but some films strike a certain chord with people – and that’s that. The bottom line: you don’t have to like or connect to a character they see on-screen in order to follow them for two hours.  All that’s required is for the audience to be subjected to an interesting character, one that is possibly relatable, but most certainly not boring.

We get all that and more here with Theron’s impressive work. In a role that reminds us why she won an Oscar, she once again commands your complete attention as she brings such a complex character to life.  She could’ve leaned heavily on the typical alcoholic or Mean Queen beats we’ve seen before, but instead she taps into the character’s denial, fueled by bitterness, hurt, and reality, which perpetuates her consistent miserable and pathetic actions. It’s a bold and brave performance from an unflinching actress who embraces roles that expose, eliciting cringes and gasps from her audience.

As great as Theron is here, she is supported by two excellent co-stars, both are actors I’ve long-admired although they are frequently overlooked – possibly taken for granted. That can’t be the case here. Patrick Wilson has the difficult task of playing “the nice guy” without coming across as clueless to Mavis’ agenda. He exceeds in this without any typical outbursts there’s no “I’m a married man!” tirades – instead his carefully selected responses display a building awkwardness that comes to an inevitable head. And then there’s Patton Oswalt – the secret ingredient that makes this movie resonate. Yes, that’s a bold statement, but it’s true. Even though he isn’t the main character, we see all that transpires through his point of view. That’s something we need , because in-between the predator (Mavis) and the prey (Buddy), we need a neutral observer offering the cold voice of reason.

Seeing Mavis and Matt default into a pair while she’s in town provides the film with not only clever irony, but also one of the best non-couple couples on-screen this year. Matt accepts the fact that Mavis is (at first) strictly using him as a drinking buddy, a sound board for her nostalgic and present-day rants. Since he doesn’t really have anyone else requesting his company, he goes along with it, making himself available to Mavis even if she gives nothing of herself. Oswalt delivers some funny zingers here and there, some bitingly truthful while others are self-deprecating, but he remains the embodiment of every ridiculed kid from school. Many of those geeks went on to build vast empires like Microsoft, but the majority of them wound up like Matt, knowing they are likely always going to be perceived as others see them to and forced to do the best they can with that.

Praise for Diablo Cody’s success with “Juno” has waned over the years, with noticeable backlash for the savvy pop-culture references and wisecracking sarcasm she populated in that screenplay. I can somewhat understand that, but “Juno” is a film I still enjoy, primarily for how genuine and authentic Cody gives her supporting characters, despite all the wink-wink dialogue. She brings some of that to “Young Adult” (there’s a fun Star Wars reference and a funny jab at fast food chains, introducing the term “Kentaco Hut”), but with a stronger emphasis on observant and challenging characterization, making this her most mature work yet. It’s a screenplay that is complex, full of depth and humor, yet soaked in brutal honesty.

It helps that she and Reitman work so well together. He embraces charismatic albeit unlikable (there’s that word again) people in a relaxed way – think Aaron Eckhart’s Nick Naylor and George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham – who are nevertheless mesmerizing because of the humanity (good or bad) they exude. In Mavis Gary, Reitman shows mostly the bad, since that’s pretty much all there is, and that’s fine. I appreciated that he, along with Cody and Theron, give her zero redemption and steer clear of any conventional arc. Let’s face it, it takes more than a visit back home to completely change.

At the end of the film, we’re left thinking that Mavis will default to a disastrous rinse and repeat cycle. Why should viewers be fine with that? Because it’s truth. I’d be content seeing Reitman reunite with Cody once every five or so years, just to see where they’re at and what material they’d tackle.

I saw “Young Adult” at a screening full of college students, where one young man behind me responded with “it was pretty good for a chick flick”. Such an ignorant reaction certainly isn’t representative of everyone in that audience, but it is quite telling. Those students are perhaps too far removed from all the references Cody inserts. They couldn’t possibly grin as Mavis pulls out an old Sony mixtape and crank songs by Teenage Fanclub, 4 Non Blondes, and The Replacements, as she cruises around a town that has replaced character with row after row of strip malls. Sure, many of these references are geared toward the mid-30s crowd, but regardless, we all have our own yesteryear to fall back on. Whether or not we do so fondly, is another thing entirely.

RATING: ***1/2

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