Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Collette Wolfe
Running Time: 94 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Young Adult is the sneakiest kind of great movie. The type that decides to stay and hang out a while. It doesn't seem like much while I was watching it or even a few hours after, but days later it crept up on me. I saw it a week ago and its been replaying in my head since. The plot can probably be summed up in a single sentence but the layers that can be peeled away from its main character seem endless. It's brave and gutsy, literally basking in its own pessimism since any other approach would just seem dishonest. A lot of viewers are going to have strong opinions about this protagonist who hits close to home in a very disturbing way. If you aren't her or at least possess a few of her less than desirable qualities, chances are you know someone who does. But as pathetic and despicable her behavior is, I can't remember a recent movie character I've felt deeper sympathy for or understood better. What happens with her is just awful and whether you can relate to her or not, there's no question this film ventures to uncomfortable, taboo territory most dramas, much less other dark comedies, refuse to go. Most will probably detest this character, but for me there were points where I wanted to reach through the screen and give her a hug. So it's a good thing the Juno team of director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody won't, remaining true to her cruel, funny, unsentimental journey of emotional self-destruction right up until the closing credits.
For many high school is remembered as worst time of their life. That divorced 37-year-old Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is desperately trying to recapture it should give you a good idea how empty her present situation is. The ghost writer of a once popular but now canceled series of young adult novels spends more time in her Minneapolis high rise sleeping, drinking liters of diet coke and watching reality TV than she does writing. She might also be an alcoholic. With the deadline fast approaching on what will be her last book in the series she receives news that her old high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) is now married and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) just had a baby. So with only her small dog Dolce and a mix tape she gets in her Mini Cooper and embarks on a road trip back to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota to try to break them up. Stopping at nothing to reclaim her man, she runs into former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who who was left permanently disabled by an attack in high school that made national news as a "hate crime" until it was discovered he wasn't actually gay. While he's as stuck in the past as she is, Matt isn't as delusional and seems to be the only one capable of seeing through her and telling it like it is. Even he knows her plan is a bad idea. But that doesn't mean there's anything he can do to stop her from humiliating herself and others.
The movie refuses to romanticize either side of the equation. It instead paints an unrelentingly sad and depressing portrait of failed dreams and small town life. Mavis' obsession with reclaiming her glory days (yes, like the Springsteen song) isn't presented as anything other than pathetically sad. There are no flashbacks presenting an idealized version of the past that would somehow justify her behavior to us. When she returns home to her old bedroom it's untouched since the early '90's. Any music used on the soundtrack from that era aren't obvious nostalgia-baiting choices and the ones that do pop up (like Teenage Fanclub's "The Concept" playing on a continuous loop during her drive) are meant to reflect the her delusion and obsessions more than anything else. Things back home aren't that great either. It would have been easy to show how exciting the locals' lives are so her actions would look worse and the issues would seem black and white. But nothing in this film is easy.
From Mavis' perspective we can kind of see how she'd view Buddy's life as "boring" from the outside looking in. Normal people living normal lives. Buddy never left his hometown, has worked at General Mills for years, married a cool girl who plays drums in a mom band for fun and changes diapers. Certain things are expected of you as you get older and most resemble what he's doing. Cody's script dares to ask why people make that choice and what happens to those who don't. Whether his life's exciting or not or whether she thinks he's happy is far from the point. He's moved on. So has her hometown. She hasn't. As mundane and unfulfilled she may think their lives are, the real problem is her inability to admit it's the life that slipped away. But doing that would mean actually coming to terms with her past instead of defiantly living in it.
Buddy's reaction to Mavis' return is odd and brilliantly ambiguous. We're not sure what he knows, or if he knows anything. Patrick Wilson's become an expert at playing "Mr. Nice Guy" and gets even more practice here. At various points we're not sure if he's pitying her, trying to be friend, completely repulsed, genuinely interested, stringing her along, or walking on eggshells with someone he thinks needs help. It may as well be all of them. Or none of them. The same could be said for his wife's reaction, which isn't one you'd expect considering her husband's old flame has just come charging back to town to steal him. Mavis' only friend and voice of reason turns out to be the kid whose locker was next to hers in high school, but she didn't bother talking to. Patton Oswalt's Matt is a lonely, but refreshingly honest character slightly reminiscent of the more tortured one he played a couple of years ago in Big Fan. Only when that film's curtain was pulled back, it revealed itself as nothing but a joke with his hapless protagonist serving as the punchline, despite his earnest performance. Here he provides better, even more essential supporting work in a black comedy that doesn't chicken out. While Matt shares certain similarities with Mavis, he possesses a self awareness she lacks and his straight shooting with her is where most of the film's dark humor comes from. He knows what his deal is and thought he accepted it. Her return opens those wounds up, but he's the only person who truly gets what she's going through.
This is a fearless, tour de force performance from Charlize Theron that's not just easily the best of this year, but on par with her 2003 Academy Award-winning performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster that Roger Ebert famously called one of the greatest in the history of the cinema. Mavis is a different kind of monster but I think I appreciate Theron's work here even more because there's no physical transformation anyone can point to as an excuse. While ugly on the inside, she does change in and out of so many different outfits and tries out so many different hairstyles that they almost become costumes and masks, with the last being the most symbolic of all. There's a moment when Mavis eagerly waits at the bar for her reunion with Buddy in this low-cut black tank top, it's a credit to Theron that we completely understand why he isn't even tempted. Mavis' self-loathing, desperation and bitchiness pierce through the actress' eyes with every glance and eye roll. She cuts with every intentional or unintentional sarcastic put-down. At one crucial point when Mavis is told she's "better than this" we believe it's true because in even the smallest throwaway moments Theron still subtly hints at the potential lost. She's in bad shape but hasn't hit bottom. At least not yet. After a brief acting hiatus Theron comes roaring back with this and the sad thing is she probably won't even be nominated. Oscar voters can't ever seem to handle it when beautiful actresses take on ugly, challenging characters unless they physically disguise themselves. Otherwise it feels too real. Here's hoping they make an exception because she's nothing short of amazing.
Add this to the already long list of great writer movies, as this script really nails the painfully funny details. Whether Mavis is staring at the blank page only to opt checking her e-mail or taking her laptop to fast food joints to eavesdrop on conversations, this is the kind of troubled, messed-up, inside-her-own head character that could only be an author. When she writes that a couple has "textual chemistry" you can't help but laugh knowing it's the same too hip and knowing dialogue that Diablo Cody was mercilessly mocked by the media for employing when she penned her Oscar winning script for Juno. When that opened casual moviegoers reacted as if they didn't even know what a screenplay was before and just realized movies are actually written by someone. She had a very specific, unique voice that turned off as many as it impressed. You'd figure that frustration had to weigh on Cody's mind when she created this character, supposedly inspired by all the probing media questions she faced about why a thirty-something woman keeps writing about adolescents. If this is her response it feels like a giant middle finger, this time using the protagonist's perceived coolness and cleverness as a mallet to club audiences. It's the anti-Juno. And for director Jason Reitman this is by a landslide his most compelling work yet, marking a full turn to the dark side after flirting with edgy satire in Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air.
It seems every year people like to say a certain film "hits the zeitgeist." The term is so casually thrown around nowadays it may as well mean nothing. But finally here's one that hits it dead center. It feels so timely, targeting our culture's current obsession with nostalgia and convincing ourselves that things were better back when we thought we were better, whenever that was. Like the celebrities we simultaneously despise and idolize, Mavis functions as the mirror in which we view ourselves at our worst and it isn't pretty. But it's honest. Whether we want to admit it or not, there's probably some of her in all of us. It definitely strikes fear in me. Here's a character slightly older than I am, listens to the same type of music I did and went to high school during my era. I always say one of the weirdest things for me is seeing peers from childhood as married parents. And you'd have to not be one to really understand why that's so. This film fully articulates that feeling.
Most go to the movies to escape people like Mavis Gary, not find out what makes them tick. It's almost as if the homewrecking villain in a romantic comedy were made the lead, but given actual motivation and complexity. We expect certain things in films and a likable protagonist is one of them. And if they're not, they at least need to experience growth of some sort. While it might be a stretch to say she achieves none, it sure isn't much. Instead she's given a final act "pep talk" that further feeds her narcissistic delusion. It's clear her road to recovery will be a marathon rather than a sprint, if there's even recovery at all. And yet, that's strangely reassuring. This isn't a coming-of-age story but instead a vicious, bracingly blunt character study that goes for the jugular, creating some cringe-worthy moments that only sting that much more because they feel real. Proof that it's always the darker, riskier movies like Young Adult that cut the deepest, unafraid of going to the brutally honest places misplaced sentimentality too often prevents.