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Young Adult

December 17, 2011
Young Adult

Well, it’s finally happened: Diablo Cody has written something I actually like. That Young Adult centers on a train wreck of a woman writing teen-romance pulp under someone else’s name in Minneapolis will pass without (much) future comment. It helps that Jason Reitman is directing, since he also helmed Juno, but much of the credit is due to Charlize Theron; Kirsten Dunst may have used Melancholia to give one of the most fantastic cinematic performances of depression, but Theron gives what may be one of the most realistic, and it may be shaping up to a dogfight in the upcoming awards season.

Mavis Gary (Theron) is a ghostwriter for the long-running Waverly High series of young adult potboilers — did I mention that Cody has taken on a film adaptation of Sweet Valley High in real life? — which keeps the lights on in her Minneapolis high-rise. She sleeps, face down, open bottle on the dresser, with the E! network still on, along with whatever extensions and enhancements she may have worn the previous night. She seems to sleepwalk through her day, and when she says she’s glad not to live in Mercury — the small town where she grew up — she sounds more like she’s trying to convince herself than anything else. And then an email shows up from her old high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), with a picture of his newborn daughter. This is just the kick in the pants she needs to… go back to Mercury and try to seduce him away from his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), and baby.

While in town she meets Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who remembers her from high school, and who tries to dissuade her from this obviously self-destructive path. It’s clear to pretty much everyone that Mavis is in trouble, except of course Mavis herself. And yet nobody seems willing to burst her bubble until there’s absolutely no other choice.

It’s no coincidence that Mavis writes about high school, since she’s become stuck there, mentally. Back then she could get by on looks and popularity, but as time has gone by that’s no longer enough. And so she rewinds over and over and over again to her favorite parts, all of which is enabled by her talent for turning this arrested development into fodder for her books. And talented she is, with a particular skill at casually overhearing teenage girls talking and picking out their dialogue for her own use. Whether this is an attempt to convince someone that some teenager, somewhere, actually talks like a character in Juno, I can’t say for certain.

The film doesn’t go into it very explicitly, but Mavis is really stuck because she’s depressed, which all too often manifests itself in some form of “stuckness” and introversion. She talks about having a life when she only seems to leave her apartment for awkward, vaguely-desperate dates; she says nobody in Mercury does anything noteworthy when Beth drums in a band composed of fellow mothers and Matt distills his own whiskey. She’s better off than all these people for having gotten out. Does she really believe it?

In a rare moment of clarity, Mavis notes that she has a hard time being happy in the first place; Theron is at her best in moments of honesty like these, even though most don’t involve any words and it’s hard to imagine them communicating effectively with many in the audience beyond those who get a flash of recognition. Indeed, it’s hard for most people to empathize with anyone undergoing a mental health crisis, let alone one who seems to go out of her way to make herself as unlikable as Mavis does. For Theron to connect with the character in the first place is an achievement, and for her to unhesitatingly embody it on screen is even more so.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ilya Kopysitsky permalink
    January 7, 2012 18:20

    Nice review.

    Consider this: Mavis is not mentally ill. She is unhappy because her marriage and her career is over. Her ghostwriting contract was finished years ago. She is 37 and she understands that the power of her beauty will fade. She goes back to her town in search of validation. To experience one more time what her life used to be like. Her idea that she can take her ex-boyfriend isn’t irrational. In her prime she could have had whatever and whoever she wanted: his marriage and children minor obstacles in the way of her looks and charm.

  2. January 7, 2012 18:37

    That’s another take, but I think it leads right back to depression. As John Cusack says at the outset of High Fidelity, “which came first: the music or the misery?” Is a long-standing clinical depression — which meshes with her long history of acting out and her kitchen-table conversation with Matt’s sister — the cause of her life falling apart, or is she depressed now because her life has fallen apart?

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