This movie is honest about make-up.

Young Adult is more a bleak character study than a comedy. Because it was written by Diablo Cody, it may also be a pretty personal film. If you don’t like Cody (and honestly, there is no reason on Earth why you shouldn’t), you’re probably not going to like this movie. Then again, there’s a lot of wit to go with the arrested development and the performances are pitch-perfect and scouring in their honesty.The trailer for the film pretty much explains the plot, which is probably Young Adult‘s least important element since the audience should pretty decidedly be against Mavis (Charlize Theron) getting what she wants. Specifically, Mavis wants to reconnect with a high school flame who she just found out is married with a new baby in their hometown of Mercury, a place conceptually familiar to anyone who has ever left the small to mid-sized hometown in favor of the big city.

One of the film’s conceits is that Mavis is a ghost-writer for a YA series about high schoolers. As she sort of gallivants around, she picks up snatches of dialogue and ideas from overhearing young girls chatting and appropriates them for her own use. Often it is clear that her main character, Kendal, is a stand-in for herself and the voice-overs of Mavis doing interior monologues in that character’s voice often lend hilarious insight into how she sees her life and just completely fucking self-absorbed she is.

I hate to give Patrick Wilson shit cuz I like him and he’s a great actor but Elizabeth Reaser’s forehead stretches more acting muscles in this one.

See, Mavis is a bad person. She is the grown up version of that tarted-up high school prom queen type that she writes about. 37 years old and dealing with an identifiable but feminine version of the arrested development so often leveraged for comedy about men, Mavis is almost a Will Farrell or Seth Rogen character. Or maybe a prettier, less crude version of Kenny Powers. Well, that might be a bit of a stretch but watch this movie and listen to how Mavis describes herself and others and think about the real core of Danny McBride’s performance in Eastbound and Down and tell me that, without the improvised and colorful dialogue, there’s really a lot of difference.

It’s very interesting to me that Mavis is a female version of the stereotypical manchild who either never grew out of their athleticism-driven high school reign or introverted obsessive geekyness. The statement is that women, too, have roles that they can take which will reverberate through the rest of their lives if they fail to grow past it. I think this isn’t so much a challenging statement as it is one which is rarely looked at in the same way as we tend to look at the same psychology in men. Of course, Cody takes it a step further and never celebrates or absolves Mavis for her bullshit. At best, Mavis becomes understandable and in doing so, she is also pitiable.

Theron digs deep in a few scenes but she’s a master so her performance never calls attention to that this is Charlize Theron in the role. That’s sort of a neat trick. More surprising though is that her performance is matched by Patton Oswalt who showed some of what he could do in Big Fan but is on a whole different level here. He’s helped by the script which ventures his character, Matt, as sort of a mirror reflection of Mavis. Matt is also in a state of arrested development but his is come by honestly, a consequence of a severe beating he received from the kinds of guys Mavis spent her attentions on. The weakest link in the movie is the perfectly serviceable Patrick Wilson as Buddy Slade, the object of Mavis’s misplaced affections. It’s not a bad performance or anything, just the type of thing Wilson has done before (Little Children, Insidious, etc) and in the least challenging version of the role he’s had yet. The character is solid, though, and gets to potentially surprise the audience by not falling for Mavis’s fantasy (well, not all the way) and staying the somewhat dim, pretty nice guy he appears to be.

Mavis kinda hates babies… but she has her reasons.

I’m going to get into some spoilers for the end of the movie and some reveals shortly before, so hold onto yer butts.

While it doesn’t really let her off the hook, Mavis’s reveal about her high school miscarriage with Buddy, something even he probably didn’t know about, explains a fucking lot about her and humanizes her. She isn’t just some narcissistic bitch trying to wrap the world around her finger and her depression and semi-acknowledged alcoholism are not there because she can’t. She’s got a history and knowing it shades everything we’ve seen her do, including the somewhat perplexing amount of time and attention she gives to a poorly-printed picture of the Slade baby.

Still, Young Adult is a bold movie in its utter commitment to being honest about these people and the demands of realism. That is to say, although Mavis has opportunities to learn and grow, she instead hides being a reaffirmation of her initial assumptions and behaviors only this time more completely as she abandons Buddy Slade along with everything else about Mercury. Beyond that, though, she is still the same person at the end of the film. It’s hard to know what to make of this in terms of interacting with the narrative because it’s fun to have the version of Mavis who has little battles of wills with apathetic hotel clerks or drinks and swears her way around with little thought to the consequences. On the other hand, it’s disappointing because true catharsis isn’t really reached though perhaps the idea is that this is a kind of semi-deluded catharsis most people can reach because it means a small adjustment, not an utter re-evaluation of yourself.

The more conventional catharsis is one that is a bit glossed over due to the focus on Mavis. Matt and Mavis hook up, just the once, in a scene that pulls back all the deception and sarcasm and bitterness that, between them, protects them from the world and other people. It was an awkward scene but totally believable since, at her core Mavis is on a quest for love and only Matt is capable of giving her some small measure of that even if it’s probably based more on his own yearnings than on any true recognition of the real person underneath all the stuff she pushes at people. That said, Matt does see the real Mavis throughout the movie and is maybe the only person in her life that ever does. He is still capable of compassion for her and certainly friendship, so maybe Matt is just a good guy and we don’t need to ascribe too many selfish motivations to the climax of their relationship.

The reason I say this is a more straightforward catharsis goes back to the quote that titles this review. It’s something he says to her and something that rings true for all the people in the audience that were ever in shoes even remotely like his, pointed at a girl/woman even remotely like her. In other words, Matt gets to have the prom queen after all he’s endured and even after what it’s made of him. That must settle something for him, not as a reward really, but as some kind of victory. It’s interesting to note, though, that even this is tinged with the heightened emotional state (and probably drunkenness) of Mavis. There’s also that, whatever he gets out of it, to her he’s just another guy she wakes up beside and has to push his arm off her to sneak out of bed (an echo of an earlier scene).

Their friendship is touching, sweet, and often combative. It’s also, like the rest of the movie, brutally honest.

I almost want to qualify the him/her stuff in more gender neutral terms but I don’t think there’s anything insidiously hetero-normative about this quasi-archetypal relationship. Still, I can certainly acknowledge that it can work the other way too, perhaps with a woman like Matt’s sister and a guy like Buddy Slade. I come at this from the perspective of a guy who doesn’t quite have first person experience of this kind of thing but a lot of proximity to it.

Young Adult is witty more than funny, and often uncomfortable in the kinds of scenes where lighter movies go for the big laughs. The character study is what matters here, though. I could easily write another 1500 words of analysis about Mavis and Matt and even other characters in the film who, while comparatively minor, also shade the themes and characterization at play. There’s a lot to unpack here, making this a movie that solidifies Diablo Cody as more than just a dialogue writer. Juno and Jennifer’s Body are smartly written movies, but not on the same level. Young Adult feels like the answer to a challenge and it’s a pretty fucking powerful one.

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