by Matt Smith
After I left my hometown for college, I never moved back in with my parents. Sure, I went back for one or two summers and various breaks now and then, but I broke free. I got out of the suffocating small town I had wanted to leave ever since I was younger. And it wasn’t even the smallest town I’d ever lived. I don’t ever want to live in a small town again. There are times when I get the urge to see what everyone I knew back then are up to. I’m glad that I rarely actually venture that way, and that I keep up with a handful of people who still in some way mean something to my life. After experiencing Young Adult, the new film from director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody after their much-lauded collaboration on Juno, I feel that maybe I shouldn’t dwell so much on anything in my past.
My friend Ashley (who insists I point out possesses “a keen cinematic intellect”) commented on Facebook recently that Young Adult was “94 of the most uncomfortable minutes of [her] life.” I agree. This is not to say that it’s not a good film. In fact, Diablo Cody’s script is incredibly strong, and I can be fairly certain that this is the best work that Jason Reitman has done as a director. I will get into a lot of discussions about how I’m crazy from friends who liked Up In The Air more. Whatever.
Young Adult follows Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a ghostwriter on a previously popular young adult book series who is in a rut. Her series is being cancelled, she is depressed, she probably drinks far too much, and she lives in an apartment with her small dog, passed out until late in the morning from the night before, sometimes with a stranger in the bed. One morning while trying to complete the final book in the series, she awakens to an e-mail from her high school flame Buddy announcing the birth of his daughter. With life not going so well in Minneapolis, Mavis decides to go back to her hometown and try to rekindle her relationship with Buddy (Patrick Wilson), her soul mate, and abscond with him back to the city.
The problem is that Buddy is happily married, and has a new baby to take care of. Any sane person can see that. But Mavis is unstable, and doesn’t think too clearly. Possibly delusional.
On her first night back in town she runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who was beaten severely in high school by a bunch of jocks and now walks on a crutch. Matt lives with his sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe), making aged bourbon in his garage (complete with names like “Mos Eisley Reserve”) and recombining the parts of different action figures into new creations in his bedroom. In many ways he is the equal to Mavis, but without the delusion. He is a kindred spirit because he too lives a life where he doesn’t feel fulfilled and is bitter about the hand dealt him.
After getting drunk together, Mavis tells Matt about her designs to get Buddy back, and Matt immediately tries to ward her off. He’s happily married, he tells her. He has a new kid. All to no avail. Mavis wants her man, and she goes about getting him any way she can. When Mavis shows up in the restaurant where Matt works having a drink with Buddy, he inserts himself into the situation and reiterates his opinion about what she is doing. Buddy seems like he’s clueless as to what’s going on, but much later reveals that he knows Mavis is unstable, and that he didn’t even want to invite her to the baby’s naming ceremony but was forced to by his wife, who felt sorry for Mavis.
There are many wonderful scenes in which Mavis and Matt commiserate over their troubles. And their dialogue is wonderful. When a night out with Buddy at a concert for his wife’s all-mothers rock band at the local bar goes bad, she shows up at Matt’s house asking him if he wants to go get hammered. “Let’s go to the woods out back of the high school. Grab some of that Star Wars juice.” Later in this same scene she cuts to the bone, showing her bitchiness in what we notice has become her typical passive aggressive way, attacking Matt when he begins to make her see the light.
Any conventional narrative would see Mavis undergo a series of revelations about her past life and see her reconcile the insanity of her actions with the reality of a world in which she is not the center of everything. She would recognize she is a total bitch, crazy and delusional, and attempt to overcome the awful person she has become. This is not that film. Mavis talks to the wrong person at just the wrong time and instantly reverts back to the big ball of crazy she was before, completely reaffirmed and reconstituted. She is bigger than her small town, and she is so much better than everyone who lives there. Mavis returns to Minneapolis without having bagged her boy, but a hundred times worse than she was before.
Charlize Theron’s performance is as brave here as anything she has done previously, including her award winning turn in Monster. Mavis Gary is a creation that has the ability to be charming and alluring yet still possess a biting wit that can completely emotionally decimate anyone she wishes. When she finally goes off at the naming party for Buddy’s daughter it is a thing of truly awful beauty. Discomforting, disquieting, hilarious and dark dark dark.
Likewise, Oswalt is kind of amazing in his own right. Despite the character playing to his stage identity (nerdy, insecure about his weight and appearance, and viciously perceptive), he imbues him with a sadness that is only occasionally hinted at in his standup. He is a perfect counterpoint to Theron, who is stunningly beautiful, and who also gives us a look at her real layer, minus makeup in some scenes, and just like the girl everyone knows who never quite grew up. They have great chemistry together onscreen, and though their sex scene could have been played for laughs, the truly brave revelation of it is that they are both playing damaged souls who have reached the only logical conclusion. They don’t connect beyond superficial misery, and there is never any real hope of a lasting relationship. All around brave turns for this unlikely pair of leads.
I mentioned previously that I think this is the best script Diablo Cody has ever written. I stand by that. Unlike Juno, the hip dialogue is toned down quite a bit, and though there are certainly quirky moments that have become her signature, they are tethered expressly to character. The evolution of her abilities as a storyteller to convey information through character can be traced through Jennifer’s Body, where Megan Fox plays a monstrous prototype of the Mavis character, and the emotionally dysfunctional Showtime series The United States of Tara. She doesn’t exactly give us role models, but she gives us interesting female leads that have just gotten better and better, culminating here with Theron’s fearless performance.
Jason Reitman, with three previous features under his belt, also delivers his typically assured and understated direction, but he seems more focused here than ever. While both Thank You For Smoking and Up In The Air seemed to wander off the rails and give us some narrative looseness from time to time, and Juno felt more like he was developing his own style in tandem with Cody, he has tightened the reigns here and given us a film that turns out to be a devastating character study. He knows exactly how to shoot his actors and gets them to trust him, and the result is that he delivers one of the best films of 2011, hands down.
I have not meant to suggest that I identify personally with Mavis. But I do have my moments of doubt and longings for things that might have been. And I also possess the same self-centered better-than syndrome that seems to affect anyone who has ever escaped a small town trying to pursue their dreams. What is so uncomfortable for me (and likely my friend Ashley) about bearing witness to Mavis’ little adventure is that there is a little bit of her in me. Just like her return to Minneapolis at the end of the film, I feel reaffirmed every time I go back home from visiting my family. I don’t have the same level of malicious hatred for everyone and everything there that she does, but given a similar life in which things had gone exactly as I’d wanted before undergoing a professional failing like the canceling of my book series or a divorce, who knows how I might feel.
Young Adult is an amazing film. To do my job as a critic and deliver hyperbolic platitudes, it must be said that this film fits squarely into my definition of a tour de force. I love everything about this movie, and the more I think about it, the more I admire it. See it, experience the discomfort, and then return to your own reality, whatever that may be.
5 stars out of 5