Mark Reviews Movies

Young Adult


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jason Reitman

Cast: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Collette Wolfe, Jill Eikenberry, Richard Bekins

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Running Time: 1:34

Release Date: 12/9/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 8, 2011

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is far more endearing when she is merely a languid malcontent with a misanthropic outlook on life and people, and then Young Adult has to go and ruin it by psychologically rationalizing the causes of her perception and behavior. Screenwriter Diablo Cody seems uncomfortable having an unsympathetic protagonist—even an engaging one—whose only goal is to disrupt the content lives of people she knew from high school because Mavis believes that happiness is merely a façade. One of them was also happy when he was with her, and since she thinks the world of herself, no other woman, clearly, could possibly make that man as happy as she could.

At the core, though, it's about Mavis getting what she wants, and what she wants here occurs on a whim when she receives an email from an old flame with a picture of his new baby attached. After all, it's been about two decades since the two split up as high-school sweethearts, and at no point in between then and now did she make the effort to get him back like she winds up making over the course of the movie. It is intrinsically apparent that there's more at issue for Mavis than winning back a beau from a lifetime ago.

Cody's error is not in the actual revelation of those stakes but in how she reveals them to us. Until then, Mavis is just a lost and wrong-headed individual who might be a narcissist but at least has the audacity not to pretend to be anything other. When Cody breaks that illusion, whatever we might have liked to dislike about Mavis turns out to come from a dark, miserable place, and Cody's manipulative effort to make that disclosure in as dramatic a context as possible leads to a scene that undermines everything before it.

At the movie's start, Mavis is in a state of lethargy. She has pages due for the next and last book in young adult fiction series she has been ghost writing for years. Instead, she lies on the couch, barely watching vapid television, and finally struggles with the opening sentence.

That's when Mavis gets the email. She wakes up the next morning with last night's date's arm over her, packs a suitcase, and hits the road for her old stomping grounds of Mercury, Minnesota, replaying the same song over and over on a mix tape the old boyfriend made for her so many years ago ("I didn't want to hurt you," goes the refrain—egging her on).

Mavis wastes no time upon her arrival, and after checking into a hotel, she drives to a local dive bar and calls the ex-boyfriend and new father Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) to see if he'd like to get a drink with her while she's in town on a "real estate deal." Spontaneity, he informs her as he bottles up some pumped breast milk, is no longer a luxury, but he would love to meet and catch up with her the next night.

The movie's moral center is sitting at the same bar. His name is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), another former classmate of hers. She doesn't remember him until he walks, revealing a limp and a cane. Back then and even now, he was known as the "hate crime guy" after a group of jocks beat him mercilessly in the woods because they wrongly assumed he was gay. When Mavis reveals her plan to convince Buddy to leave his wife and start a new life with her, he instantly tells her she needs psychiatric help.

This turns out to be true, but until we learn that fact after she haphazardly announces to Matt one night that she suffers from depression, the movie plays off Mavis' egotistical expectations of other people, which lessens the sting of her biting personality. The few denizens we meet are not the backwards hicks she anticipates but normal folks living out their lives the best they can. Buddy still works at his father's company (He proudly tells her that the two have lunch together every day). His wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) finds time despite her parental duties to play in a band with other local mothers (Just from their looks, they seem to know exactly what Mavis is trying to do); Mavis is devastated and then doubly resolved to get Buddy back (Theron is quite good in these moments of simmering quiet) when Beth dedicates the song from the mix tape to her husband.

Director Jason Reitman understands the antithesis of Mavis' opinion and realty, and the reason her acerbic digs at her old acquaintances are funny is that we know they aren't entirely correct. They are also, to an extent, deserved, since everyone is secretly resentful of Mavis' external signs of success. It's relatively harmless baiting.

The shift happens when Mavis makes her intentions crystalline during a climactic baby-naming party. Here, Cody allows everyone's pent-up suspicions and emotions to come to the surface in a string of dialogues that cut right to the bone. There's nothing natural about the scene, and the way Cody has her protagonist lay bare everything in her past before a stunned crowd is simply cruel. Young Adult shatters whatever goodwill we might have had for these people in one scene; the defeatist results thereof are just salt on the wound.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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