Going into Young Adult I was skeptical. In the past, I’ve seen people fawn over Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman as if they’re God’s gift to cinema, while I’ve been the one huffing words like “overrated” under my breath. Juno (written by Cody and directed by Reitman) was cute but much too quippy, and Up in the Air (directed by Reitman) was absolutely not as good as everyone said it was.
But while the writer and director gave me pause, the cast of Young Adult intrigued me. I was curious about the seemingly odd pairing of Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt, and the trailer made me want to see more of Theron’s bitchy side. When the movie was over, I was finally able to say loud and clear that Cody and Reitman had made something worthy of praise.
The title Young Adult has two meanings: Its main protagonist, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), is a 37-year-old writer of young adult novels – and she also acts like she belongs in one. That is to say, she’s a seriously stunted, poor excuse for an adult. It’s like someone wrote “Never change” in her yearbook once and she took it literally. With her TV permanently set to mindless reality shows, Mavis spends her days attempting to craft teenage drivel in her lonely, messy Minneapolis apartment. She has the kind of tiny dog Paris Hilton thought was trendy like 8 years ago and she still wears Hello Kitty sweats. She also sucks diet coke out of the bottle like it’s life’s blood, and when she’s out, she does the same with whiskey. The picture ain’t a pretty one, but Mavis herself is gorgeous – that former popular girl we all knew in high school – and she knows it.
She’s spurred to take a trip back to her hometown by a baby announcement from her old high school flame, Buddy (Patrick Wilson, in another faded jock role). He’s married, with a newborn, but Mavis is confident she can win him back. She’s determined to “save him” from that life, convinced that he must be totally miserable. When she arrives back in the town, the first person she runs into is an old high school classmate named Matt (Patton Oswalt). Matt’s a grown man still nursing his own high school scars – literally. A brutal beating by a bunch of bullies left him crippled and sidelined with self-pity.
Mavis and Matt develop a weird friendship of sorts – he repeatedly tells her she’s nuts for pursuing a perfectly content Buddy, she frequently berates him for being a loser. But they’re both broken people looking for someone to lean on. And as unusual as it may seem, the chemistry between Theron and Oswalt just works. It’s also great to see Oswalt playing a character that isn’t just the goofball. He has chops, both comedic and dramatic.
Theron delivers some of her best work here as the vapid, immature Mavis – a teenager in a woman’s body with an old lady name. She gives the “mean girl” facade depth, by showing that Mavis’ actions come from a real place of hurt. She’s got more issues than can fit in her little red Mini Cooper – from the way she drinks and chases married men to the way she compulsively yanks of strands of her own hair. Mavis isn’t just the “bitch” or the “homewrecker,” she’s more complex than that. Theron, who’s known mostly for her heavy roles in films like Monster (which won her the Oscar), has a surprising knack for comedy and gets to show off her sharp wit with this role. It’s a great change of pace for her and a much-welcome return to the big screen after a three-year hiatus.
Diablo Cody’s script does contain some of her signature Diablo elements – the pop culture references, characters with quirks – but unlike Juno, Young Adult feels authentic. Diablo includes details that help bring the characters to life, and not just gimmicky ones like hamburger phones. The way Mavis types jibberish into her phone to make it look like she’s busily texting away feels like a total real-life moment. C’mon, haven’t we all done that at some point?
Mavis’ life isn’t neatly resolved by the end. In fact, we’re left wondering if she really learned anything. Lucky for her, she’s a beautiful trainwreck, so even if she didn’t learn a damn thing, we’d still be unable to look away.
Soon after her divorce, a fiction writer returns to her home in small-town Minnesota, looking to rekindle a romance with her ex-boyfriend, who is now married with kids.