YOUNG ADULT isn’t just the best drama/comedy of the year, it’s also a horror story that plays out in terrifying slow motion. By the end of the movie, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron in an inspired role, her best acting since MONSTER) hasn’t changed. In fact she’s become worse, a more insular version of the stifled personality that’s killing her at the beginning of the film, and it seems as though redemption has been lost. Yet the journey to this awful destination is two hours of quality entertainment, and the best that the JUNO creative team of writer Diablo Cody (UNITED STATES OF TARA) and director Jason Reitman (UP IN THE AIR, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING) have yet offered, and a startling reminder that there are still films that don’t require thousands of pounds of dynamite to have the most powerful explosions.
Mavis Gary is the ghost author of a series of SWEET VALLEY HIGH-clone young adult novels titled Waverly Prep, and while it’s kept her in a hermetic alcoholic existence in her high-rise apartment in Minneapolis, the series is reaching an ignominious end (mandated by her unseen editor). Simultaneously, she finds out that her high school sweetheart Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson of WATCHMEN and LITTLE CHILDREN, and great here too) has just had a new baby girl. While Buddy is actually happy with his suburban life, where his biggest adventure is just going to a home improvement store to see if there are any Weber grills on sale, unhinged from reality, Mavis takes the e-mail as a sign that Buddy is crying out for her to come back. She travels to their hometown of Mercury, Minnesota for a chance to win him back from his happy life with his garage band drummer wife (Elizabeth Reaser of TWILIGHT) and new infant child.
Without going any further, let’s just say that things don’t end as expected for Mavis. She’s an emotional tornado that wreaks havoc on the small-town citizens of Mercury because of their tiny, boring lives and their subsequent satisfaction that seems so far out of her reach. She tears apart her family for caring too much, Buddy for accepting what she assumes is a terrible existence, and during a climactic scene at the baby’s naming ceremony, Buddy’s wife for being too nice. The only person who pushes back against her is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, BIG FAN, RATATOUILLE), who is harboring unrelenting pain of his own as the crippled victim of a misguided hate crime. If Oswalt doesn’t get nominated for an Academy Award this year, he will have been robbed. In the role of a man who was invisible to Mavis while she was attending high school and had her locker next to his (assumedly because she was too busy winning the award for “Best Hair” multiple years in a row), Oswalt absolutely nails it. There are two sequences where Matt’s pain emerges to tear down the walls that Mavis has built for herself; one is a blunt yelling force of destruction, and the second is a single line that is the best description of a loner’s high school existence that John Hughes never wrote. If YOUNG ADULT gets nothing else right, it perfects the blunt honesty that comes when all the illusions that you held about yourself are torn away, leaving bitter unhappiness in its place.
What’s really amazing in the politically correct environment of 2011 is how Reitman, Cody, Theron and Oswalt pull no punches with their characters. Anything that could be described as “cutesy” or “hipster” is vacant, replaced with an acrid bitterness that I assume pumps blood through Mavis’s cold heart. There’s no “honest to blog” here, but rather vengeful looks, washed out colors, and a hint that Mavis’s screwed-up existence isn’t all her fault. Reitman’s direction is continuously muted, and the showy choices he made in UP IN THE AIR are replaced by smartly blocked shots where he lets the actors do their biggest work. It’s sad that he won’t be nominated for an Academy Award for this one since what he does is even more impressive: He trusts his actors to find the sweet spots in these chilled roles, and then he supports them with smart editing and long, painful takes.
Diablo Cody may be the biggest surprise here, though. When Mavis tells her parents that she thinks she’s an alcoholic, it’s brushed aside as though it were an expected snarky remark. Instead, they let her sit there in her pain, not knowing what to do with a daughter that looks like the most beautiful woman on earth while she literally drapes herself in Buddy’s old letterman jacket from school. Cody’s writing throughout the film is just like this: sparse, tight and painfully honest. I’m not sure where she went in her mind to write this tale, but I hope that she is able to revisit this without staying. Those of you that hated her for JUNO have no excuses now. Diablo Cody has earned her title as an A-list screenwriter for this one.
Even the soundtrack, which is loaded with mid-90s rockers apropos for a person that never got done listening to their ex’s mix tape, isn’t hip so much as a sad reminder that some things remain stuck in their original time. The Lemonheads, Cracker, and Minnesota’s finest band (The Replacements, as if you needed reminding) have their catalogues raided to provide Mavis with a shell for her to stay 18 forever, and Mateo Massumi’s unrecognizable remixes of 90s classics like Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and Faith No More’s “Epic” are perfect complements to Cody and Reitman’s narrative. And no other film has ever used Teenage Fanclub to this great of an effect. BANDWAGONESQUE is probably the most underrated album of the 90s, so to hear its opening track “The Concept” used as an anchor to Mavis’s tortured psyche is glorious. When it pops up again in the movie, it’s used in the best way possible. Reitman and Cody know how to use pop music in movies to greatest effect, and it’s quite thrilling to watch it here.
One thing that needs to be pointed out is how Mavis is obsessed with reality television. Images of the Kardashians and Kendra Wilkinson pop out as Mavis stumbles through her life, sitting in front of the screen with vacant eyes and a perfect Pomeranian. Theron smartly uses her own stunning beauty as an excuse for Mavis’s unconscionable behavior, and we see those sources of beautiful people acting stupid around her when she’s alone. No wonder her existence seems to be so unfulfilling, no wonder she relies on young adult fantasies to satisfy her desires and structure her life, and no wonder she’s the perfect author of wholly fictional writing aimed at impressionable teenage girls. If she never matured past the high school days that she found so fulfilling, why should she ever change her entertainment to reflect the dying soul she bares to Matt and her parents in brief glimpses? The only times we see her perfect face marred by the terrible decisions in her life are the strands of hair she pulls from her head, leaving an ugly scarred spot; or the mornings after incredible benders where she chugs down greater quantities of Diet Coke in an effort to kill the events of the previous evening. Yet every day she puts more makeup on in a way to hide the actual reality of her tortured existence from everybody else, much like I imagine the Kardashians and Kendra to do when the cameras aren’t rolling.
Ultimately, this is a movie that you must see in theaters, and be prepared to have long and hard discussions about it with others that may not share your opinion about the film. It’s not an easy film to watch, but I believe that it may be the most important and personal one you will see all year. Hearkening back to the glorious 70s nihilist cinema of FIVE EASY PIECES and TAXI DRIVER, YOUNG ADULT will remain with you long after Mavis Gary quietly leaves Steak N’ Shake to an unknown state of existence.