Young Adult is a unique, unconventional, extremely well-made film. That’s as much as can be said with any degree of objectivity, and whether individual movie-goers will actually enjoy the experience is a different matter.
The story, sprung from the fertile imagination of screenwriter Diablo Cody, follows Mavis Gary, a city-dwelling writer of young adult fiction who can’t seem to move on from her teen years.
When Mavis receives a mass email from her former high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade announcing the arrival of his newborn daughter, her dormant insecurities are piqued. And so departs on a mission to her hometown to win him back and prove that she is still the prettiest, most popular girl in town.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this synopsis conjures images of a comedic romp through small-town America, and the trailers seem to convey a similar tone. However, the final film, while occasionally very funny, does something much subtler, much more affecting.
With a track record like Jason Reitman’s (his last two films both having received Best Director Oscar nominations) it almost seems redundant to report that Young Adult is well-directed. Many of Reitman’s strengths are on display once again: grounded, realistic characters and settings; simple, effective camerawork; an attention to detail in all aspects of the mise-en-scène.
The overall tone, however, is a bit more subdued than his previous work. Intimate is the word that comes to mind in describing the directorial style here. When Mavis visits the manicurist, you can almost feel the nail file nicking the soft skin underneath. When a character doesn’t know what to do, you can almost hear their heartbeat and shallow breath. Across the board the performances are so naturalistic that it’s often hard to laugh at the jokes.
The writing, too, brings a slightly different angle than one might expect. Young Adult is a departure for Cody in that it isn’t about teenagers and doesn’t feature the catchy turns of phrase she’s known for. At the same time, it epitomizes a different aspect of her style: it’s a movie that is completely fueled by character, and not plot. After the initial impetus of the mass email, there are no more plot twists, no arbitrary events.
The entire movie is a gentle unfolding of layers upon layers and facets within facets of the main characters’ psychologies. And it’s a good thing that the unfolding is so gentle, because the memories and relationships that get revealed are so harsh.
Charlize Theron does a terrific job presenting in Mavis Gary an incredibly unsympathetic protagonist. She is relentlessly selfish, occasionally to the point of cruelty, and both the script and Theron’s performance make no secret of this.
However, by the time her deepest motivation is revealed in the final act (the one moment that made me think that yeah, maybe we are meant to sympathize with this character at least a little bit) we are brought so fully into Mavis’s world that it’s hard not to be engrossed in the story of this tragic, vengeful, burnt-out, monstrous-yet-somehow-believable ex-prom queen.
We watch as she silently cakes on make-up, expertly applied, but still not enough to mask the bags under her eyes. We see her wake up, hung-over, with the blue light of The Kardashians flashing from the hotel TV across her fully-clothed body.
Alone in the car she plays and repeats and repeats and repeats a song from a mix-tape once gifted to her by her beloved Buddy. Like her or not, there is truth in this character. We live in an age that makes it extremely easy to escape the present and stalk the past.
Patton Oswalt also does a particularly great job as Matt Freehauf, the former classmate with whom Mavis forms an unexpected bond. Many of the traits that have gained him notoriety are still present—the funniest moments in the film are often his, his delivery is wry and charming, but what’s really remarkable is how well he captured the history of this very complex, childish, honest character. Though significantly more lovable and sympathetic than Mavis, Matt also carries with him an air of tragedy.
This air of tragedy, in fact, pervades the entire film from start to finish. I can’t really say whether this is a strength or a weakness, it’s a matter of personal taste, but I expect that it will be difficult to swallow even for more open-minded viewers. By the time Mavis is fully revealed to us, it may be too late for many viewers to care, having been subjected to her immaturity for about an hour already.
Despite my own misgivings about the way the narrative is structured, I must applaud the film simply for its dedication to its own style and lack of convention—a rare feat in an industry where even award winners often come with a cookie cutter sensibility.
Also, lest we forget, the film is also a comedy. An early moment has Mavis talking to a fellow city-dweller about how much better they have it than anyone still stuck in their hometown. “At least we have lives,” they conclude. The next shot is Mavis alone in her apartment, sinking deeper into her couch as The Girls Next Door plays on TV. Dead-on satire from Reitman and Cody.
In the end, what do I think about Young Adult? I don’t exactly know what I think, but I know that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I left the theatre. Young Adult is a challenging film. It may not be a pretty picture, but if you can clear your mind of expectations and movie-going convention, you will find a truly beautiful piece of work.