Mavis Gary is out of her fucking mind. It's apparent from the moment we first meet her in Young Adult that she's depressed. She's also a reasonably high-functioning alcoholic, shows more than a few flashes of sociopathic tendencies, is blatantly narcissistic, and also just plain mean. She's the very definition of a princess who never became a queen. Despite being overwhelmingly popular during her high school and college years, life for Mavis just hasn't panned out as she'd hoped. She works as an "author," though her work is purely as a ghostwriter on a young adult series called Waverly High, which is in its waning years of popularity. She's divorced, living alone in a drab condo in Minneapolis, with only her small Pomeranian to keep her company. When she's not putting off writing work by browsing OK Cupid or slamming Diet Cokes, she's obsessing about her former high school flame and his new family.
Because Mavis Gary is clearly insane, she decides that it's time to do something about her current situation. Rather than, you know, maybe trying to clean up her act and settle into a less destructive social existence, she instead tear-asses her way back to Mercury, Minnesota, the hometown she has long since disowned. Her intent is to get her old boyfriend back, wife and child be damned. She will do anything she has to in order to ensure her own happiness, regardless as to what expense it might mean for others. She is the worst.
Mavis Gary is not an easy character to sympathize with, on paper. To make a successful antihero in a film, there has to be some kind of comic touch to them, some kind of underlying vulnerability that lets us identify with this creature at least on some utterly basic level. It's one of the reasons another film that tried to craft a similar type of antiheroine, Bad Teacher, failed. In that film, Cameron Diaz's titular instructor was essentially just a cartoonish ball of narcissism, surrounded by equally cartoonish personalities. Her redemption felt hollow, pointless, and as self-serving as anything else in the film. Young Adult thankfully manages to avoid this pitfall. The script by Juno and Jennifer's Body scribe Diablo Cody treats Mavis like a human being--one with severe issues, but still someone grounded in an identifiable reality.
And then there is Charlize Theron, the actress tasked with making us love to hate (or hate loving) Mavis. Theron has played ugly before, but this is something altogether different for her. Mavis is still an attractive woman on the outside, boozing and vile attitude not withstanding. Her nastiness is less the result of a specific character flaw, but rather years of piled up disappointment and resentment. Theron has to be pretty, but hateful, a Mean Girl all grown up. In this role, she is oddly perfect.
It's not an overstated performance. If anything, Theron is especially admirable here because of her willingness to avoid histrionics. She lets her face do much of the underlining. Her reactions mostly come in dagger-eyed stares and self-assured smirks. A simple glare says more about the cold, calculating personality underneath than any shrieking nonsense another actress might have gone for.
Most of Theron's best scenes come in tandem with Patton Oswalt, who plays a former high school classmate who ran in decidedly different circles than Mavis. He is the former victim of a hate crime, as several jocks evidently pummeled him within an inch of his life, mistakenly believing him to be gay. That is not an especially funny back story, but Oswalt makes it funny with his trademark, off-handed way of explaining things. The pairing of Theron and Oswalt makes little sense at first, but it becomes clear at a certain point that their gravitation toward one another fits in a kind of twisted way. They're both broken people in one way or another. Oswalt makes a good sounding board for Theron as she tries to justify her increasingly insane actions. His own social awkwardness accounts for why he'd be willing to entertain hanging out with someone so reprehensible--his good-natured shit-calling seems to be a breath of fresh air for Mavis, even if she rarely follows his advice.
If Young Adult has a flaw, it's that it occasionally plays things a little too cute. Not in that Juno, "every other word is some kind of precious hipster portmanteau" kind of way, however. If anything, this is the least Diablo Cody-ish of all Diablo Cody scripts. It's more that both Cody and director Jason Reitman can't quite resist the urge to make all of their characters a little too cool for what they really feel like they ought to be.
Oswalt is rarely seen without a Black Flag or similar faded punk t-shirt on, while the wife of Mavis' ex-flame just happens to be the drummer in an all moms cover band, who cover Teenage Fanclub and other '90s alternative bands' songs. In fact, they play the same Teenage Fanclub song that the husband put on a mix tape for Mavis years ago. As portrayed by Patrick Wilson, said husband doesn't seem terribly "with it" when it comes to music or culture, which makes the relative obscurity of his music taste ring a tad hollow. Never mind that even the local dive bar, full of cranky old men, is blasting The Replacements. I know this is Minnesota, but come on. At best, that bar is playing Bachman Turner Overdrive deep cuts.
Maybe that's a nitpicky thing to get irritated over. It's just that Reitman does such a good job of nailing the other little details of small town life from the eyes of someone so completely over it all. The long, scornful shots of strip malls and chain restaurants, the bleak suburban landscapes, and even the dreaded parental interactions feel pitch perfect. I think in a way, Cody and Reitman do their characters a bit of a disservice by trying to make them too cool. Thankfully, it's only a minor disservice in the grand scheme of things. So much of Young Adult works as intended that minor quirks like this will probably be irrelevant to most, as you'll likely be too busy marveling at the excellent work of Theron and Oswalt to care.
Trailer: Young Adult
The director and writer of Juno re-team for this look at a woman who returns to her hometown exclusively to steal back an old flame, even if she has to break up a marriage to do it. Snark futures are up 53% in after-hours trading.
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