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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: Young Adult

How do you make a broken, reprehensible character sympathetic? If you’re Diablo Cody, you don’t … not exactly. Cody penned the script for Jason Reitman’s new film, Young Adult, which stars Charlize Theron (who seems to be making quite a career for herself plunging headfirst into the kind of challenging ground many actresses fear to tread) as Mavis Gary, the once-popular beauty of her small-town Minnesota high school, currently a recently divorced, hard-drinking ghost writer of a once-popular young adult series that’s on the verge of being discontinued. As the story kicks off, Mavis, now living in Minneapolis, gets an email announcing the birth of a baby from her old flame and high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson); the birth notice sets Mavis off on a misguided mission to return back to her long-shunned hometown and rescue Buddy from the hellishly boring life she imagines he’s living, tethered to a wife and child she’s convinced he couldn’t possibly want.

Theron is getting a lot of well-deserved accolades for her transparently honest, painful portrayal of this broken woman who’s as ugly on the inside as she is beautiful on the surface, and I’ll get back to her in a minute, but I want to take some time here to talk about the writing of this script and this character, because it’s the scaffolding on which Theron’s performance is built. I’ve been a little surprised in talking to a few folks here and there about this film to hear some say they loved Theron’s performance, but weren’t impressed by the script. Are you kidding me? Did Theron pull this character out of thin air? This is bold, honest, compelling writing, unafraid to embrace this painfully awkward, flawed character exactly as she is, without copping out by leaning on some contrived, by-the-books character arc. What’s amazing is that a major studio would have the balls to make this film at all. And yet they did, in spite of this script being built around a protagonist who is almost agonizingly unlikable.

Frankly, I suspect there’s still a bit of post-Juno, anti-Cody prejudice still lurking here and there amongst the critical set, like those pesky dust bunnies that you can’t ever quite seem to get rid of from under your bed; if Bobcat Goldthwaite had written this script, I’m betting many of the folks so quick to dismiss what Cody’s done here would be tripping all over themselves in their rush to advocate for this script getting an Oscar nom. This is bold, honest, refreshingly original writing that far exceeds, for me, many of the scripts being bandied about as potential nominee material.

But let’s get back to Mavis and Theron’s portrayal of her. Even Alan Arkin’s surly grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine, who shot up heroin and taught his young granddaughter to dance like a stripper for a beauty pageant, had his redeeming qualities, but what little there is to redeem Mavis comes in the briefest flickers of soul-light that she seems determined to extinguish before anyone realizes they’re even there. It would be easy to dismiss Mavis as little more than a textbook narcissist – and she is that, to be sure – but she’s also deliciously layered and complex, a beautiful woman filled with self-loathing, crippled by self-doubt, embracing her darkest impulses, and hiding even within her “successful” career behind the safety net of being a ghost writer, even as she frequently refers to herself as an “author.”

Mavis could have been a one-dimensional character, this woman who peaked in high school, thinks she will never be better than that, and fixates on the love of her high school years as the means of fixing all that’s horribly broken with her adult life. But Cody goes beneath that surface to find a character who wasn’t even actually as good at her peak as she thinks she was, whose life pattern is to treat others reprehensibly and with zero compassion, who lacks utterly qualities such as warmth and empathy, even your most basic, bland likability.

Theron, in bringing Mavis to life, portrays a real, complicated, difficult woman, while occasionally giving the viewer room to empathize, if not sympathize – impeccably and without apology. Mavis is the kind of stunning woman who turns heads when she walks in a room, even in sweats and a t-shirt, but she just as quickly turns people cold once they start talking to her; she doesn’t like or need other people much – other than the idealized vision in her head of who Buddy was and who she thinks he is now – and yet she hungers for the approval and attention of others. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks; and yet she does care, desperately. Even as Mavis descends into delusion and histrionics, Theron keeps it reined in and never showy or over the top. She reveals the inner pain of this tragically funny character transparently, in every minute beat and expression.

From a story standpoint, Mavis’s mirror and ally is the relationship she develops with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, who’s just brilliant here), a man carrying a large chip of resentment on his shoulder, physically scarred by his own high school years of being bullied – and beaten nearly to death and permanently crippled by a gang of jocks who attacked him because they thought he was gay. Mavis, who never looked at or acknowledged Matt through high school even though her locker was right next to his, blithely says to him as “Oh, you’re the hate crime guy!” upon meeting him in a bar — a revelation of rather stunning cluelessness; nonetheless she finds that he’s the one person she can connect with now. And oddly enough, as he gets to know the Mavis who’s broken and imperfect and not at all what his high school self had fantasized she’d be, Matt finds himself connecting with her, caring about her, in spite of the kind of person she is.

One of the film’s best aspects is that what you think is the plot – Mavis going back to her hometown to chase after Buddy – actually reveals itself to be the subplot relative to her unlikely relationship with Matt, the pair of them the dysfunctional polar opposites of the high school food chain. It’s this relationship, not Mavis relentlessly pursuing Buddy, that really drives her character arc and gives us little tingles of hope that through each other, these two broken people might find a way to become whole. As Matt’s plain-Jane sister, Sandra, Collette Wolfe gets great little pivotal moment near the end of the film; it’s a moment that, like most other potential turns in the film, doesn’t go quite the way you think it might.

Mavis’s relationship with Buddy is drawn with less detail, but I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s drawn with less detail deliberately. We see Buddy distorted through the lens of Mavis’s delusional thinking; she has determined that she and Buddy were meant to be together, and she will go all out to have him back, wife and baby be damned. She fails repeatedly to see the signs that Buddy is committed to his sweet wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), and their new baby; Mavis is an emotionally stunted narcissist, unable to feel or empathize with others in any real way, and it’s a bold decision on the part of Cody and Reitman to not waver on letting us see the many ways in which Mavis’s flaws impact those around her. And the thing is, there are people like Mavis — you can probably think of one or two of your own acquaintance — who recklessly roll over other peoples’ lives, incoherent of the damage they cause, and because life is not a fairy tale, they don’t usually have a miraculous revelation that they’re assholes, and then decide in a flurry of montage and music to suddenly change their nature, who they are at their core.

You have to give credit to director Jason Reitman here as well — for taking on such a challenging, ballsy script and recognizing the potential in it, but more so for believing in the script that Cody wrote and shooting it as it was, without wavering to do the easier thing and make a film with a completely redeeming ending. There are no bromides, no easy answers, to be found here. This is very dark comedy that borders on the tragic, and that’s not such an easy thing to pull off; Reitman, who keeps the pace brisk and his focus on Mavis throughout, does so. His instinct for pacing, for capturing Theron at her most fragile and transparent, and even for knowing when the audience needs a bit of comic relief to release the tension from watching Mavis’s story unfold, are pretty much spot-on.

Young Adult dares to challenge the very notion of what story has to be, by making its protagonist so antagonistic, unexpectedly flipping plot and subplot, and seeing Mavis through to the end of our time with her, leaving her before we see any real resolution; or to be more precise, perhaps what there is of resolution in Mavis is really all there is. There’s no intention to draw her whole life history, here, just this particularly disturbing slice of it. Rarely do I get to see a film that gives me this much to chew on for days after I see it, but I can’t get Mavis and Matt out of my head. Which is a tribute to the deft direction and the terrific performances, absolutely, but also to the writing. I was a fan of Juno, but there’s none of the light-heartedness or emphasis on clever, pithy dialog from that film carried over here; this is Cody exploring the darker side of human nature, and it’s done just superbly.

My one caveat has to do with the way the film is being marketed as a comedy, because it’s not what a lot of audiences will expect when they walk into it because they see the words “comedy” and “Juno team Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody.” This is not Juno, not by a long shot. Young Adult is dark, fairly tragic, often painfully uncomfortable material that plays so well it makes you want to avert your eyes from Mavis and her antics. Perhaps what we’re seeing here rings a bit too close to the darker side of ourselves, and we’re inclined by our own nature to cringe away from that. There’s a sugar-coating of humor to help it all go down a bit easier, but audiences who don’t understand just how darkly comedic this film is going in – or who prefer their “comedy” to be lightly entertaning and formulaic – are going to be in for a surprise. Go see Young Adult because it’s smart and original and well worth your time, but go into it understanding what you’re getting in for, because Cody and Reitman are here to take you on one hell of a bumpy ride.

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One Response to “Review: Young Adult”

  1. LYT says:

    Oddly enough, I didn’t cringe at all, and aside from the whole homewrecker business (granted, that’s a BIG aside), I totally sympathized with her. Writing terrible teen lit and forcing yourself to watch the Kardashians all day on TV to get into the feel of teenspeak would make me an asshole too.

    Not sure what that says about me.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon