“Magical” may be an odd word to describe a dark comedy as intentionally depressing, uncomfortable, and mean as Young Adult. But there is a magic in watching a writer, a director, and an actor craft a captivating character who keeps the audience guessing to what’s in her head. In creating Mavis Gary, screenwriter Diablo Cody, director Jason Reitman, and actress Charlize Theron do far more than simply put a mean girl from high school under the magnifying glass. There’s inarguably a state of arrested development for Mavis, but what keeps her interesting is if she knows how pathetic she really is. Throughout the movie, I kept wondering, “Does she know she’s deluding herself? Does she know how much she’s embarrassing herself and is she just trying to ignore it?” Mavis could have easily turned into a David Brent-type where the obliviousness is both hilarious and cringe-inducing. Cody, Reitman, and Theron provide a dramatic weight to that obliviousness. Young Adult only stumbles when the film tries to take a shortcut at the end to force her in a particular direction. But everything that comes before is a nasty, delightful piece of work
Mavis Gary (Theron) is a young adult writer but she considers herself an “author” even though she didn’t create the dying young adult series she writes, and is tethered to a series bible. However, the books allow Mavis to put her catty, shallow years from high school to good use when she writes from the perspective of her protagonist. When Mavis receives an e-mailed photo of her old flame Buddy Slade’s (Patrick Wilson) new baby, she leaves Minneapolis and returns to her “hick town” home of Mercury, Minnesota to win back Buddy. The fact that Buddy has a new baby and a loving wife (Elizabeth Reeser) are inconveniences to Mavis’ attempt to escape her dreary existence and rebuild her fantasy life. Of course, drama queens need an audience so she ropes in her old secret admirer Matt Freehauff (Patton Oswalt) to be her sounding board even though he seemingly has nothing but cynicism for her.
Immediately following Young Adult, I felt the movie was slight. It was funny enough, well-directed, well-acted but if it’s just about one sad woman’s arrested development, then there’s not much more you can do with it. But the movie refused to leave me and as I continued to consider it, I couldn’t help but admire the balancing act Cody, Reitman, and Theron pulled off. Mavis is a fascinating character study, and it doesn’t simply feel like revenge at what we hoped the high school Queen of Mean would become. In all honesty, she probably became a pharmaceutical representative or some other profession where she could continue to get by on her looks and her ability to manipulate others all the while being too shallow to notice her own flaws (this would also apply to her male equivalent, the dreaded jock).
But what sets Mavis apart is that deep down, she probably does realize how shallow and empty she really is. She spits on Mercury for being the same hick town, and only the restaurants have changed (although every city in America should have a “Champion O’Malley’s” because the name is so great). Is she oblivious that the people in Mercury have changed and she’s the one who’s still the same? She’s a hard-charging relic into the lives of Buddy and the other people she knew from high school. She can still effortlessly deploy a catty comment, but it now seems sad instead of cutting. As Buddy innocently tells her, “It’s like the rest of us changed. You just got lucky.” Of course, he’s referring to her looks, the one element Mavis can still control.
And that’s one aspect where Reitman’s clever direction comes into play. Reitman’s previous three films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air) have all carried a dramatic element, but he’s managed to cloak it a twee get-up and hit his audience with an emotional sucker punch. This time around, he plays it in reverse where we only get hit with dark comedy and most of the movie is shot in the dirty, hand-held fashion that provides an “objective” perspective on Mavis’ implosion. But when she heads into the beauty salon, it’s like we’ve stepped into a new movie. She’s preparing for battle and all of the shots have a clean, cool efficiency. Her looks are still her most potent weapon, and she thinks she can win back Buddy on her beauty and seductive qualities alone.
However, Mavis isn’t even aware of her greatest appeal: the nostalgia she represents. The question that broke Young Adult open for me was: “How far can we get away from who we were? And more importantly: how far away do we want to get?” Nostalgia allows us to escape from the complexity of now and into a world where everything bad was forgotten and we can only remember the good. Buddy has no reason to consider it, but deep down we can see Matt is enraptured by it. With Young Adult, Oswalt isn’t the revelation he was in Big Fan, and sometimes his stand-up persona leaks through (especially at the outset when Mavis is getting drunk—a frequent habit considering she’s an alcoholic—and he exclaims, “Goodbye, Liver!”), and it may have been better to make him a different kind of geek rather than one who spends his time switching around the parts of superhero action figures.
But he absolutely nails why Matt can’t get away from her. By all accounts, he should hate her. He had the locker next to her throughout high school and she doesn’t even remember him until she notices his crutch and remembers he’s “The Hate Crime Guy,” because he was beaten to within an inch of his life by some jocks who thought he was gay (even though he isn’t). Matt clearly takes pleasure in mocking Mavis’ desperate attempts to win back Buddy, but Oswalt subtlety lets us know that he’s at the beck-and-call of the popular girl who has deigned to use him as her drinking buddy and confidant.
Subtle moments like these provide more power than the heavy-handed ones, although those are where Young Adult gets its laughs. When we see Mavis sucking down a bottle of Diet Coke like it was a baby’s bottle or watching trashy reality TV shows featuring teenage girls, we clearly understand she’s never grown up. And yet it’s the little moments: the fact that Mavis always wakes up the clothes she was wearing the night before, how the male population (and some of the female population) of Mercury is cloaked in flannel, and redefining what a “hick town” means in the 21st century, where Young Adult can also be clever. It’s another mark of the brilliant balancing act the movie accomplishes.
It’s all embodied by Theron who delivers on conveying the sadness and comic meanness of the character. Plenty of actresses would simply flip the switch between “Sad Mavis” and “Mean Mavis”, but Theron keeps the performance consistent by putting something desperate-yet-resigned behind the eyes. It engenders our sympathy even when the character has absolutely no right to it. Theron gives a performance that’s not only funny and heartbreaking, but it’s damn smart and understands there’s a complexity at work so we can’t simply write Mavis off with a one or two word description.
Which is why the false note the film hits near the end is all the louder. Young Adult comes to a perfect closing shot that sums up and says everything we know and will ever need to know about Mavis Gary. But to bring the character to that moment, Cody’s script takes a major shortcut. The penultimate scene is so forced that I almost thought Mavis was having a dream. It’s an unfortunate cross-section of coincidence and simplicity for a movie that has done everything right up until that point.
Despite the shortcut, Young Adult does manage to get where it needs to be and the road there is funny, heartbreaking, vicious, and brutally honest. There’s a Mavis Gary in all of us, not in terms of how we behave, but in terms of what we want. Young Adult fearlessly shows how far someone is willing to go in order to get back what she thought she had.