“Young Adult” comes to us from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody who gave us “Juno,” but this is a very different movie. This collaboration of theirs is a bruise-black comedy starring Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, a writer of young adult novels which resemble those “Sweet Valley High” books many read years ago (I did not). She finds out her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) has become a dad, and she travels back to her hometown in a mission to steal Buddy away from his wife and rekindle their long-lost romance.
Both Reitman and Cody dare us to share some time with a most unlikable character. Mavis is a recent divorcee who spends her mornings chugging down Diet Coke, her nights getting drunk on premium whiskey (Maker’s Mark should see an increase in sales from this movie), and she can barely hide her contempt for the town she grew up in. That she writes young adult books is a metaphor for her arrested development as her best years were in high school, and she has never gotten past them.
Theron is one of the best actresses working in movies right now, and her performance as Mavis Gary is one of her bravest. This is not a likable character, but Theron finds the humanity within Mavis, and this makes us want to follow her journey. While we despise Mavis’ desperation in reclaiming a past which has long since passed her by, Theron digs deep into the pain and depression which has long since engulfed this character, and she succeeds in making “Young Adult” more unforgettable than it already is.
But as great as Theron is, she is almost outdone by comedian Patton Oswalt who plays Mavis’ former classmate, Matt Freehauf. His character got beaten up very badly in high school, and his injuries have kept him from moving forward in life. Oswalt inhabits his character fully and never allows Matt to turn into a caricature. His sense of humor acts as a defense against the hurt he can quickly be reminded of, and he too finds the humanity in a character who could have easily turned into a cliché.
Cody’s script is excellent in mining the humor out of incredibly awkward and pitiful situations. This is a cathartic story which perfectly captures the dynamic between those who have moved on from high school and those who have not. This feels like a very personal script for her as it ponders those formative years which define us more than we want them to. While we would love to see those popular kids suffer tremendously, we can’t get past the sadness of Mavis’ current situation.
Reitman bravely moves out of his safety zone with this movie. As with his other movies, he succeeds in making all the characters seem as real as those we know in real life. While the beginning may seem slow and unnecessarily cold, he brilliantly highlights the sad state of Mavis’ life as much of it has been stolen from her.
Whether or not you think “Young Adult” reaches out to all those who loved “Juno,” it does show off the tremendous talents of Reitman and Cody. What results is a movie which dares to go down roads we would rather not revisit, and it finds a humor and humanity many will not see coming. Some will strongly dislike this movie as its main character is far from likable, but you don’t need likable characters to make a good movie, let alone a great one.
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