|PARAMOUNT PICTURES/PHILLIP V. CARUSO|
Charlize Theron is shown in a scene from "Young Adult."
"Young Adult" is the rare film that I'm having trouble wrapping my head around.
Its central character, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a former high school beauty queen, now approaching 40 and still a knockout, is deplorable at the start, and we like her less and less as the movie progresses.
She escaped small-town Mercury, Minn., after high school, moving to Minneapolis, where she ghost writes a series of young adult novels, once popular but now coming to an end due to cancellation. We sense she had everything handed to her when she was younger, and has grown bitter and resentful of everything and everyone around her because that's not how the real world works.
A typical day starts with her waking up with a hangover (or possibly still drunk from the night before), still wearing yesterday's clothes, with one of many vapid reality shows on her TV.
An email from her old high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), announcing the birth of his first child, along with a photo of the baby girl, inspires a return to Mercury, where she intends to win Buddy back, because, in her mind, they always were meant to be.
Mavis is an alcoholic and probably mentally ill. Buddy sees both traits and is friendly despite her obvious intentions.
Another former classmate, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), recognizes them, too, even if Mavis doesn't recognize him—until she remembers him as the "hate crime guy." Back in high school, a group of bullies severely beat Matt, incorrectly believing him to be gay, shattering his legs and another body part below the waist.
Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, who previously collaborated on "Juno" (2007), present an unflinching character study of a woman whose emotional development has been stunted for 20 years.
Theron doesn't shy away from it either, showing no desire to win our sympathy or approval, resulting in one of the year's best performances.
Oswalt, who is nothing if not sympathetic, is her equal. In his own way, Matt, too, is stuck in young adulthood, and he's able to both pity and connect with Mavis.
Cody, who has received much criticism for her attempts to be youthful and hip in earlier screenplays, pokes fun at herself when we hear Mavis's writing in voiceover, which also serves as an outlet for Mavis to comment on her own life.
The difficult, surprising aspect of the film is that we have been conditioned to expect the protagonist to see the error of her ways, to learn and grow from gaining new insight into herself and others—and Reitman, Cody and Theron deprive us of that. The truth is, most people do not change—not in ways that are profound, at least. For most of us, we are who we are; those epiphanies so often found in movies and TV shows are rare in real life.
We might not like Mavis, but given what we have seen, the path she eventually takes is the one most believable.
Though there is much humor in "Young Adult," its lasting impression is one of sadness and disappointment—it's the anti-"Juno."
Greg’s Grade: B
(Rated R for language and some sexual content. 94 minutes.)