Review: ‘Young Adult’

Charlize Theron in 'Young Adult' (Paramount)
Charlize Theron in 'Young Adult' (Paramount)

An acutely-observed, acidic character study, ‘Young Adult’ features an outstanding, nuanced performance by Charlize Theron, a strong supporting turn by Patton Oswalt, and the best script yet by Diablo Cody, well-served by Jason Reitman’s direction. It’s a very funny picture, and dead-on in its depiction of a mercurial woman who is just waking up to the idea that she may need to make changes in her life if she ever wants to be happy.

Ensconced in a high-rise apartment in the Midwest U.S., Mavis Gary (Theron) is a 30-something single writer who lives like a 30-something single writer: cheap furniture, clothes stuffed into see-through plastic storage containers, floor littered with fast-food wrappers. She’s facing an impossible deadline, dealing with writer’s block for a new installment in a young adult series of novels, but is moved to action by news about her old flame Buddy Slade, and impulsively drives to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota.

Mavis looks with disdain upon the retail chain stores and restaurants that have invaded Mercury. She arranges to meet Buddy (Patrick Wilson), fully expecting to dazzle her high school beau with her beauty and big-city sophistication, only to be greeted with a pleasant, if bland fellow who is happy and content with his lot in life. Buddy is married to fellow high school classmate Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), who is pregnant and expecting their second child; he’s glad enough to see Mavis again, but a quick drink with an old friend is about all he has in mind.

Mavis can’t quite comprehend that. She’s breezed back into a small town she despises, ready to reclaim her position as a haughty hottie, a high school beauty queen, the one who could pick and choose her boyfriends. She figures that Buddy has been pining for her, that he’s settled for Beth and a boring lifestyle.

So Mavis sets out to rescue Buddy, who doesn’t know he needs to be rescued.

Providing wry commentary is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who sees Mavis in a bar on her first night in town and must remind her that they attended high school together. He was savagely beaten and left for dead by vicious classmates who thought he was gay; ‘Oh, that’s right,’ Mavis finally remembers, ‘you’re the Hate Crime Guy.’ Permanently disabled, Matt harbors a reservoir of bitterness, which he draws from when speaking plainly to Mavis about her plans to wreck Buddy’s family for purely selfish reasons. The two unhappy 30-something singles end up bonding over their failed — or non-existent, in Matt’s case — love lives.

Mavis’ continued delusions of self-grandeur are contrasted nicely with Matt’s realistic appraisal of their respective situations. He lives with his sister and spends a fair amount of time in the garage, keeping himself busy with various hobbies. Mavis, on the other hand, did not always live like a 30-something single writer, and she’s facing challenges in her life that are much bigger than a looming deadline.

Cody’s script lays everything out in a calm, natural, everyday manner. Her characters talk as we would expect people in those specific situations to talk, without artifice or the excess of smart-aleck, self-conscious slang that marred ‘Juno.’ (She even mocks the idea that she simply eavesdropped on teenagers to steal “authentic” dialogue by having Mavis do the same.) But, yes, many writers steal from their own lives for the purposes of dramatization, and that’s what Mavis does as well, taking inspiration to push her YA (young adult) novel to melodramatic heights.

With the cast delivering spot-on performances and Reitman’s direction capturing the spirit of the story and the characters,’Young Adult’ works extremely well as a snapshot of a woman on the verge of a breakdown — or a breakthrough, if everything goes just right for Mavis.

Theron fully inhabits Mavis, whether she’s looking frumpy or dazzling, focused on writing or distracted by the dim wits who sometimes surround her. Mavis is a frustrating sort, because she doesn’t seem to learn anything from her past mistakes. She’s been living her life with a blithe disregard for others, and the accumulation of ill will is finally catching up with her. She may not know exactly what she should be doing, but ‘Young Adult’ captures her at the end of a long, long chapter of her life, with more to come.

Mavis is a spoiled brat of a girl who got older without ever really growing up. She verges on being insufferable, but, beneath her cool exterior, Theron gives her enough warmth and humanity to make the ending a rooting matter. And that makes ‘Young Adult’ essential viewing.

Originally published at Twitch.

‘Young Adult’ opens today at select theaters across the Metroplex.

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