It’s a story that we hear about so often in love songs, romance novels, and soap operas: Beautiful lady (Or gentleman) from a small town gets their dream job in a big ol’ city. It’s everything they’ve ever wanted, until they realize they’re still pining for the one that got away. Except in Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody‘s world, this beautiful lady also has a drinking problem, and is a little bit rude and crude. In their newest collaborative venture Young Adult, director Reitman and screenwriter Cody apply a familiar quirkiness to a fictional exploration of life, love, and happiness, a la 2008’s critically-acclaimed Juno. However, the narrative of Young Adult skews much differently: While Juno was centered on a teenage girl forced to grow up quickly, the leading lady of Young Adult is failingto grow up at age 37. But as she realizes, confronting the past may serve as the only awakening for getting over it.
Young Adult is a film that definitely deserves its title for a few reasons: the refusal of its main character to move on, her immature attitude, the fact that high school, “young adult” life was her glory days…and because she makes a living as a writer of young adult fiction. Charlize Theron portrays the embodiment of all this as a Minneapolis author named Mavis Gary, who loves all kinds of alcohol, drinking straight out of a 2-liter of Diet Coke, her accessory pooch Dolce, and trashy reality TV. Recently divorced and faced with the pressure of writing the final installment to her series Waverley High, Mavis gets set off when she receives an email about the birth of her ex-boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson)’s new daughter. Though he’s now a father and married to one of their old classmates Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), Mavis drives back to the town of Mercury, Minnesota in hopes of winning him back. She remains stealth about it at first, but when she runs into another classmate, Matt (Patton Oswalt)—who had a tragic high school experience and still can’t get over it—he tries to set her straight.
The character of Matt is a refreshing one in this story. We all knew that guy in high school, but never gave him a second look. Perhaps we even made fun of him. But naturally, that guy would be the one to reach out when it matters the most, and that’s what he does for Mavis. More importantly, Matt says what we’re all thinking—that Mavis is going off the deep end for feeling that Buddy is unhappy and that they still belong together. At the same time, with all her complexities, it’s hard to either love or loathe Mavis, yet you just hope that she feels complete and happy somehow. Theron pulls off all kinds of magic as this deeply troubled yet sharply and surprisingly hilarious character. She delivers sting, edge, and emotion for a truly mesmerizing and a uniquely gritty performance. Mavis is as high-maintenance just as she is lazy, wearing a weave and vampy makeup to outdo Beth’s new motherly looks whenever she sees Buddy but going out with her unbrushed hair and PJs to eat at one of the many KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut combinations in Mercury (An awesome running gag in the script) and work on her book. Even in her most subtle and silent moments—as when Mavis watches with jealousy, shock, and pent-up anger as Beth drums along to a song she dedicated to Buddy, the song that was Mavis and Buddy’s back in the day—Theron is a scene-stealer, more than able to make the audience feel Mavis’ feelings in both simple and thundering degrees.
Along with the dialogues that make Cody’s scripts wickedly delicious, the story structure in itself is a very interesting one. The story is not only Mavis’ but also that of her Waverley High heroine, Kendall. As the movie progresses, Mavis picks up on all the little things she hears from teenage girls around her and adds them into her story. But much more significantly, all the realizations she makes about herself and her life during her journey back to Mercury couldn’t be more fitting for wrapping up her literary series. She’s not really writing a fictional character’s story, but her own. Mavis and Kendall’s coinciding narratives are those little cliches of endings and new beginnings, but they’re written in ways that the audience develops a strange attachment to them. Although they won’t end up the way some people might want them to, what happens is more real than a typical Hollywood script, and that’s just one of many reasons why Young Adult is a likable film, despite the messes of characters and their actions.
The film’s only logistical weakness is that there could have been better explanation for a few mystery points. Personally, I would have liked to hear more about Mavis’ ex-husband, but maybe those points were better left out. The out-there script and characters may also make Young Adult awkward to watch for some viewers. However, fans of non-sugarcoated and offbeat films will likely find this creative marriage of Reitman, Cody, and cast surprising, spirited, and delightful.
Young Adult opens in theaters December 16th.