There’s a genuine ambivalence about small town life at the heart of Diablo Cody’s Young Adult that finally drives the film home after a rocky start. I choose the word “genuine” very carefully because it’s not an adjective you’d normally attach to Cody’s career, so far more of an ironic pose than something rooted in anything resembling actual human experience. And yes, Young Adult is very much her film. Jason Reitman is listed as the director, but he’s more of an innocent bystander to the material than an authorial voice, just like he is in every one of his other movies. Young Adult definitely belongs to Cody and to star Charlize Theron with a capable assist provided by Patton Oswalt.
Theron plays Mavis Gary, a bitter, aimless drunk whose sole success in life – moving to Minneapolis and ghostwriting a series of young adult novels – is already fading fast as the film begins. Facing a grim future, she turns to her past and her old high school flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) who stayed behind in tiny Mercury, Minnesota to marry and start a family. Mavis sees Buddy as trapped in a rut and imagines he’d only be all too grateful to be rescued from his suburban domestic hell with its diaper changings and shitty malls and chain restaurants. She’s wrong of course and awkward, occasionally caustically funny chaos ensues.
Young Adult takes way too long to set up this relatively simple character and conceit. For a full 50 minutes it doesn’t really go anywhere, but it starts to fire on all cylinders around the point Mavis begins to bond with her old locker neighbor Matt (Oswalt). Matt was the nerdy high school fat kid left a cripple by a group of classmates who savagely beat him because they thought he was gay (the sad irony for Matt is that even his celebrity was short-lived when it turned out he was actually straight). That the emotional cripple bonds with the physical cripple is certainly not subtle and Cody’s script hits that button repeatedly, but it still works. Cody, Theron and Oswalt’s willingness to go this dark are what finally give the story some vitality.
At this point, Cody might’ve gone in one of two equally problematic ways. She might have re-embraced small town life as an idyllic lost paradise, or she might have just used the story to continue hammering away at the shabby, bland regressiveness of little Mercury and the people who stayed behind. Luckily, Cody finds a trickier third way. She leaves the citizens of Mercury their basic dignity while also making it clear Mavis’ instincts to get out in the first place were sound. Mavis’ problem isn’t that she moved on, it’s that she left behind the good things while still clinging to the bad.
Mavis is one of those roles that requires an actress to be willing to come across rather badly. There is nothing lovable about her and it takes a long time to even begrudgingly sympathize with her. Theron is naturally pretty, but as Mavis she looks worn down even when she makes herself up. It’s not a case of a glamorous actress dressing down to look frumpy. Theron physically looks worn out behind the hair and makeup. The way she continues to wield that bitchy entitlement born of being the high school princess is sad, repellent but also somehow funny.
Oswalt is also excellent as Matt. Equal measures funny and kind of pathetic, he’s as broken and stuck as Mavis, but he at least has an excuse. Oswalt lets Matt be vulnerable and sad while also infusing him with a tiny measure of backbone.
While Young Adult takes its time getting going, give it credit for being neither an easy satire of a fallen high school prom queen nor a nostalgic lament for a lost small town past. It exists ambiguously somewhere in between and in that gray area, Cody is at least plumbing an honesty and a maturity she hasn’t shown before.
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