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Non-Review Review: Young Adult

Young Adult is a good film, even if it falls short of greatness. It has a wonderfully engaging premise, and a set of truly wonderful leading performances from Patton Oswalt and Charlize Theron. It is also, for most of its runtime, a very compelling and brave examination of a very flawed protagonist. For the first two-thirds of the film, it invites us to follow a truly loathsome lead character, one with very few redeeming features. Unfortunately, this rather gutsy set-up is undermined by a fairly shallow attempt to justify and rationalise her flaws in the movie’s third act.

Homecoming queen?

Theron is great here, in a role that can’t have been easy. She plays Mavis Gary, a thirty-seven year-old woman who has endured a number of fairly significant set-backs. Having escaped her small-town life and securing a job as a ghost writer on a series of young adult fantasy novels, Mavis recently went through a divorce, and also discovered that the book series was coming to an end. So, Mavis, being the young go-getter that she is, decides it’s time to sort her life out, by returning home and winning the heart of Buddy Slade, “the one who got away.”

Of course, Buddy is not only happily married, he’s also a new father. Mavis intends to steal the husband and father away from his family, all to make herself feel better. As you might expect, she’s not what you might deem “a good person.” And that’s the entire charm of the film, as Mavis grossly misinterprets her situation, acting as if she’s headlining one of those awful romantic comedies about the character returning home to find true love. According to Mavis’ somewhat distorted world-view, she’s cast herself as Julia Robert in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Except that she clearly didn’t stay for the end of that movie.

Best of buddy...

Mavis is a barely functioning adult, a woman who can’t even bother to feed her poor dog properly – and forgets about it while she does her Wii exercises. She can’t be bothered to remember most of the people in the small town she left, even the kid with the locker next to hers in school. “I live in Minneapolis now,” she boasts to her former classmates, as if it is some massive accomplishment to have escaped her hometown to live in “the Mini Apple.” She surrounds herself with enablers and sycophants, people who obscure and distort her very rare moments of introspection, feeding her self-justifying rationalisations and preventing any possibility of breaking this repeating pattern. “I might be an alcoholic,” she confesses to her parents in a strange moment of honesty, only for her parents to ignore the line as they make small talk about life in general.

So Coady’s script is suitably wry and vicious in its approach to Mavis, and Theron and Reitman are perfectly good sports. Mavis tries to rig spontaneous encounters with her target, while none-too-subtly telling everybody how they are meant for one another. “We always found each other,”she explains. She digs out his old sports jersey and wears it around the place. Her parents idly humour her pining, while refusing to engage. When she first sees Buddy, she tries to get locked in one of those long and meaningful stares that we see in films, ones rendered in slow motion, while Buddy is oblivious. At the most hilariously awkward moments, we get a glimpse of how incredibly frustrated he is with her obvious attempts to destroy his life, while she’s convinced that she is wooing him back.

Putting her face on...

To base a movie around a character like that is wonderfully subversive and more than a little bit brave. Especially in an industry where we’re always told about the protagonist’s journey, and we’re more likely to refer to morally compromised antagonists as “anti-heroes” rather than out-and-out “villains.” Indeed, what makes Theron’s portrayal of Mavis so deeply fascinating is the simple fact that she refuses to grow and develop as a lead in this sort of movie generally would. The credits play over Mavis’ journey back home, as we’re treated to the sight of her constantly rewinding Buddy’s old mix-tape to play that one song. It’s a pretty apt summary for Mavis’ situation. In fact, Reitman frames the same shot towards both the beginning and the end, and returns to the same images of Mavis in bed, to illustrate how little she has allowed herself to learn.

However, this rather biting and wonderful approach to a lead character is undermined by a fairly substantial character development in the third act. I’m not going to spoil it, but it seems like Coady tries to humanise Mavis, trying to convince the audience to feel sorry for her. The problem is that this revelation feels more than a little bit forced – it’s not so much narrative sleight-of-hand as it is obvious trickery. In doing so, Coady immediately strips away a large amount of the ambiguity around Mavis, giving us an excuse for whyshe acts the way that she does, and why she has refused to grow up.

Ice cold reception...

I think that this revelation actually has the opposite of the intended effect. Coady obviously intended to add depth and shading to Mavis’ character, but this twist actually reduces her complexity. It feels like an excuse or a justification rather than a character motivation. It seems like an especially cynical trick to pull, because it’s completely unnecessary. Reitman and Coady were probably afraid of making Mavis appear like a completely unlikable character, but she’s actually quite pitiable even before that particular bombshell is dropped. It just feels like an awkward attempt by Coady to root dysfunction in a particular formative event, a very narrow and simplistic view of how people develop. Mavis actually seemed like a more fully-formed character when her refusal to grow up was suggested to be because she had failed to retain the popularity and influence she wielded in high school.

Anyway, it’s the only real complaint I have about the film, but it’s unfortunately quite a substantial one. It doesn’t ruin the movie or anything quite so dramatic – instead, it just simplifies it. It removes a lot of what made the first two-thirds so brave and so fascinating. It doesn’t change the fact that Coady’s script is well-observed and perfectly cynical, and it doesn’t diminish Theron’s powerhouse central performance, both of which are very strong selling points.

She wants her baby back...

Theron’s portrayal of Mavis is pitch-perfect, and a wonderfully candid leading performance. Here she constantly seems tired or in withdrawal, listing or coasting through the film rather than actively moving. Without going through any of the extremes of physical transformation that we saw in Monster, Theron manages to make Mavis a very ugly person. Not in a literal sense, but in a very genuinely unpleasant manner. There’s no way that Coady’s script would have worked with a lesser actress in the central role, and I think that Theron truly makes the movie.

Reitman has assembled a strong cast around Theron, although I am probably in the minority of commentators who believe she gives the best performance in the film. Patton Oswalt is great as the one local with whom Mavis strikes up any sort of honest relationship, the victim of an “almost hate crime”who now walks with a crutch, and whose outer injuries mirror Mavis’ inner turmoil. Also good is Patrick Wilson, who tends to be consistently solid in whatever he does, playing the poor Buddy. Elizabeth Reaser is good as Buddy’s wife.

Setting the bar...

Young Adult is an entertaining film that navigates most of its runtime as an exceptionally brutal character study, one that doesn’t feel the need to obscure the warts on its subject. The last-minute attempt to justify Mavis’ cold exterior feels more than a little force and dulls the edge of this other-wise razor-sharp comedy, but it doesn’t undermine a superb central performance from Theron.

5 Responses

  1. Theron gives a terrific performance. She elevates the movie by demonstrating her versatility. She almost makes you feel sympathetic towards this blonde, beautiful and sharp-witted anti-heroine. Oswalt deserves consideration for supporting actor as well. Great review Darren.

  2. Theron is not only one of the hottest pieces of womanhood to grace the silver screen – ever – she can actually act! Great review!

  3. Loved this review. Well done.

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