Young Adult is a surprisingly interesting and original movie that might be called a dark dramedy. My expectations for this film were not especially high, and at first I ignored its presence in the list of Netflix new releases. As it turned out, however, I was pleasantly surprised by it.
Charlize Theron plays Mavis, a woman who is not really a young adult (she’s 37), but writes books for that age group. She is the type of single, professional, big city thirty-something that you find in a typical Hollywood romantic comedy.
That, however, is where the similarity ends. Mavis is not the average, sweet character you find in such movies, but utterly self-absorbed, most likely an alcoholic and possibly suffering from one or more personality disorders. Still, she is not entirely unsympathetic, at least if you have a tendency to prefer antiheroes (or anti-heroines) to the virtuous yet bland good guys/gals who inhabit mainstream films.
Mavis gets an announcement in her inbox that an ex-boyfriend is a new father. She randomly decides that this is a clue from the universe that she should return to her hometown and try to reignite this relationship from decades ago. It hardly needs to be pointed out that this scheme is ill-thought out, or not thought out at all. Yet Charlize Theron manages to make Mavis believable as she pursues her obsession.
What happens for the duration of Young Adult is less interesting than the way the characters interact. Mavis’ ex is a rather typical small town nice guy named Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who is ultimately forced to reject the increasingly irrational Mavis.
The only anchor Mavis has in her hometown of Mercury is Matt (Patton Oswalt), a nerdy, disabled and possibly gay former classmate from high school. He attempts to talk Mavis out of her plans to break up Buddy’s family. While she doesn’t listen, the strange friendship that develops between Mavis and Matt prevents her from going off the deep end.
Young Adult was directed by Jason Reitman, who has made a couple of other outstanding yet low key dramas –Juno (starring Ellen Page) and Up in the Air (starring George Clooney). It was written by Diablo Cody, who also wrote the script for Juno.
I admire the way Young Adult presents us with a character who has blatant and probably incurable flaws, yet doesn’t reduce her to a caricature or even a villain. The few films that dare to buck the saccharine plot lines of conventional romances and romantic comedies usually go to the opposite extreme, flaunting their cynicism and the conclusion that everyone is corrupt and selfish beyond redemption.
Young Adult certainly heads in that direction, but has more nuances and ends on an ambiguous note. Mavis can be seen as almost a parody of the negative Generation X stereotype. She is sarcastic and utterly narcissistic, her values apparently formed entirely by popular culture. We see evidence of this as we hear the lines she writes for her teen romances (many of which she steals by eavesdropping on actual conversations).
If you read a typical book on screenwriting, or attend one of those weekend workshops, you’ll be told that the protagonist has to grow or change in some significant way by the end. The same advice is given to aspiring novelists. Apparently, the experts who dispense this type of wisdom haven’t heard of postmodernism or seen many films not made in America.
Whether Mavis “grows” or learns anything by the concluding scene of Young Adult is actually a difficult and interesting question. This very ambiguity is one of the things I like so much about the film.