For better or worse, high school was a defining point in the lives of most American adults. For the lucky ones, it’s all fond memories of friends, parties and dances. For most others, they couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. Then there are people like Mavis Gary, who never really left. Portrayed by Charlize Theron, Mavis is the main character of Young Adult, the latest film by acclaimed director Jason Reitman. Penned by Oscar-winning scribe Diablo Cody, Young Adult is a story about the popular girl everyone hated in high school returning to her hometown only to realize it might have always been better off without her. This may hold true for audiences as well, when it becomes so easy to remember why they hated this girl in the first place.
Mavis Gary seems like she has a lot going for her. She’s a successful author living on her own in the bustling city of Minneapolis. Or so she’d like everyone to think. The reality is she’s only a ghostwriter on the tail end of what was a successful book series for teenagers, and her SWF city life reeks of depression and alcoholism. Soon, an e-mail from old high school sweetheart Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) celebrating the birth of his daughter sends her packing back home to the little town of Mercury. Her goal is to rescue her ex-boyfriend from the horrors of his domesticated family life and reclaim the happiness she always believed was hers. When she lands back home, a late night at a local dive has her connecting with former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) who was permanently injured in a misguided act of random violence. A drunken Mavis reveals her plan to Matt, who immediately points out the pure insanity of the idea. Undeterred, Mavis treks onward, despite the pleas of friends, family, and common sense.
Young Adult has a lot of great things going for it. A universally talented cast and both a widely acclaimed writer and director should make Young Adult a success right out of the gate. However, Young Adult is so sour on its own premise that it’s difficult to embrace on a normal level. That’s not to say that the film is poorly made in any way. Charlize Theron gives a very serious, committed performance. She’s simultaneously detestable and piteous – a character you hate as much as you feel sorry for. Charlize embodies Mavis to a whole, and audiences can’t help but be drawn in by her no-holds-barred and nothing-to-lose approach to life. Patton Oswalt also holds his own, delivering a stellar supporting performance. Young Adult’s funniest moments are between Mavis and Matt, either arguing about their situations in life or just getting colossally drunk. They also share a few moments of genuine emotion too, and it’s really only through Matt that the audience will ever see a glimmer of hope for Mavis.
The production of the film itself is also one of the more enjoyable aspects of Young Adult. Shot on multiple locations, the film really does capture the feel of a small town left behind. For any audience member who has ever grown up and moved to the greener pastures of the big city, this will be an immediately recognizable feeling. It’s a little bit of nostalgia and a little bit of poking fun, but it makes for one of the most resonant aspects of the film.
Despite the shining performances from the main characters and solid direction of Jason Reitman Young Adult just doesn’t come off as enjoyable. It’s a combination of things working against the film rather than for it. Charlize puts so much into a character that’s unlikable to begin with that all of her effort is buried under Mavis’ genuine disgust for everything around her. Even with Diablo Cody’s trademark snappy writing in full force, the core message of the film is just too mean spirited. There’s hardly any redemption to be found in Mavis’ journey as a character, and what little reward she might have earned is squandered at the end by some of the most defeatist sentiments audiences will have heard in recent years.
Young Adult is a difficult movie to take in, and will probably speak to individual people in different ways. Those expecting a movie similar to Juno or Reitman’s previous Up In the Air may be the ones to leave most disappointed. Whereas those films balanced out heavier emotions and themes with more good-natured humor, Young Adult is fairly dour from beginning to end. While the film certainly has strengths that keep it far from being a bad movie, the relentless negativity of the overall experience makes it difficult to recommend. There may be people who can relate to Mavis’ refusal to grow up, but for most others, you’ll dislike her even more at the end than you did at the beginning.