Wednesday, January 11, 2012
In Theaters: Young Adult
One of the good things about sticking up for creative people is the smug sense of validation when they finally prove themselves. When I reviewed Jennifer's Body I said that the backlash against Diablo Cody was a little excessive and that she actually had talent that was obscured by her tendency towards overly hip dialogue. Now she's gone and reunited with Juno director Jason Reitman and they've made a mature, thoughtful character study with only a few audible hipsterisms. Young Adult is the best film I've seen from either talent, and though it's confusingly being marketed as a straightforward comedy, the reality is it's a scathing, discomforting work that nonetheless has compassion for its broken central character.
Charlize Theron is Mavis Gary, ghost writer for the long-running Waverly High series of YA novels that's slowly drawing to a close. When she learns that her own high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), is now a father, she decides to take a break from Minneapolis and head back to her hometown of Mercury. Her plan is to win him back, but along the way she runs into school sadsack Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who was beaten up for being gay (though he actually wasn't) and still walks with a limp. Matt is the first person to whom Mavis explains her plan, and rightly diagnoses it as utter insanity and a horrible thing to do. Mavis is undeterred and starts arranging meet cutes with her intended, even as he struggles with trying to be a responsible father and husband. And it's not like his wife (played by Elizabeth Reaser) is anything but a sweet and considerate person. It's clear that Mavis is heading down a very dark path, but she's unwilling to pull away.
There's a trick to telling a story with an unlikable protagonist. Mavis is, as we work out from fairly early on, pretty screwed up. She had a great time in high school, and despite several years in the real world she still believes in "Love conquers all" to a rather self-destructive extent, even as she becomes cold and calculating when it comes to pursuing her target. But though she doesn't have very many redeeming qualities, Mavis is fascinating to watch. In some ways she's out of her depth but in other ways she's brilliant and cunning, and though her plan seems doomed to fail it's still interesting to see what depths she'll sink to.
But the film isn't purely a black comedy. Mavis has more problems than can be chalked up to having read too many teen lit books, and it's clear that on many levels she's deeply unhappy and in denial about being unhappy. The film never lets go of a certain humane pity for her, and Matt articulates this dichotomy well; he objectively sees all the problems that Mavis has, but because he was the fat nerd and she was the most popular girl in school, he can't tear himself away. He of course is also damaged by his experiences, and while he's aware of that damage, the awareness only helps so much.
The film is a showcase for two truly amazing performances by Theron and Oswalt, both of whom have proven their chops before. Theron has the delicate job of keeping the audience from being fully repulsed by Mavis' selfishness, and shows the conflict within her very well. (I also have to credit the makeup and wardrobe for this picture- depending on the scene Theron goes from looking normal and a bit jaded to being absolutely drop dead gorgeous.) The same sardonic delivery that makes Oswalt's stand-up work so well serves him nicely as the only character calling Mavis out on her shit, while being aware of his own.
Young Adult is uncompromisingly honest. Whenever it threatens to veer into cliche it steps back just a little and takes a more delicate path, dealing in a very complex manner with the way our pasts define us and warp our present. Mavis is a woman who should be free, who has the means to make a good living and find a good life, but instead she's drawn back to Mercury, rewinding the same part of an aged mix tape over and over and trying to reset the one big thing that went wrong in her past. It ends messily, as it has to, leaving us to wonder whether she'll ever escape. But as horrible as she is, it's hard not to hope just a little.
Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Jason Reitman