Movie Review: Young Adult
By Ryan Mazie
December 14, 2011
The last time Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman teamed up, it was for the 2007 monster indie-hit Juno. Then, we saw what happens when the geeky kids in high school become popular. Now, on their first film reunion, we see the reverse; making the downfall of the High School Queen Bee just as satisfying as seeing the nerds take their revenge.
A dark, dark comedy (if it can be even called a comedy; there are a lot fewer laughs than expected for a script written by the Juno-scribe), Charlize Theron gives a showcase performance as Mavis Gary, a ghostwriter of a used-to-be-popular young adult fiction novel series. In fact, used-to-be is a great way to describe Mavis. A used-to-be teen Queen of her high school, Mavis still acts the bitchy part, albeit through her crowd of followers.
Directed by slice-of-life director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), Young Adult’s first scene is Mavis passed out, face first on her messy, bed waking up to chugging a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke. She’s a reality show star waiting to happen. While the rest of the world has grown up, Mavis seems trapped in an adolescent mindset – the only thing maturing is her skill in scheming.
Diablo Cody won her Oscar for the Sunny-D chugging Juno. Charlize Theron won her Oscar for the dark and heavy Monster. Mavis Gary seems like a Frankenstein-ian mash-up of the two genres and Reitman’s extreme close-ups of Gary’s intense beauty regiment (a montage of facials, pedicures, manicures, hair extensions, moisturizers, and tweezing) is the monster coming to life. Devoid of guilt and filled with bitter resentment, her facial expression is permanently set as a stone cold death stare. The only person Mavis lights up for is her ex-high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson, who never quite matches Theron’s intense velocity).
Determined to win Buddy back (Mavis well-knowing that he is married with a newborn baby), she returns to her “hick town” (the school’s football team is called the “Injuns”) for a week of personal jabs.
Theron finally has found a meaty role where she doesn’t have to tone down her beauty, but rather is able embrace it. On the outside, Mavis is drop dead gorgeous, but with her piercing eyes full of venom that could make her enemies drop dead, Theron is chillingly marvelous. Not given any favors by Diablo’s sarcastic and cynical dialogue or Reitman’s unflattering camera angles (which Theron defies, proving that she can be shot stumbling drunk and still be sexy), Charlize manages to attract the viewer to her repulsive character beyond just hot looks.
Cody and Reitman once again prove that mainstream filmmaking isn’t for them. They don’t let Mavis off of the hook with an ending epiphany, but something much more shocking, and in retrospect satisfying, although it may leave some audience members with a bitter taste in their mouths assuming that they haven’t walked out of the polarizing film already from the uneasy tension bubbling under the surface throughout.
Patton Oswalt has a surprisingly deft performance as Mavis’ high school locker mate (although Mavis cannot remember him besides as “the Hate Crime Kid”) who forms a bond with the returning Prom Queen in her quest to win Buddy back. Oswalt, providing the most laughs, still dwells upon high school, but for different reasons that are both touching and as sickly demented as Mavis’.
In a quick 93 minutes (to be fair, I’m not sure anyone would want to spend more time with these characters), Diablo Cody shows her growing maturity as a screenwriter with her third script (her second was the lifeless Jennifer’s Body). Nixing the pop culture references and catchphrases (although I do hope that the saying “Ke-Taco-Hut,” the clever nickname for the all-under-one-roof KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut restaurants, catches on), Cody shows her affinity towards teen culture, but through the interesting perspective of a grown woman who refuses to let those years get away from her.
While Mavis’ novels might be lackadaisically written, Cody’s punctuating dialogue, Reitman’s cynical tone that matches the comedic qualities, and Theron’s fiercely impressive performance make Young Adult one of the year’s most mature looks at life.
8 out of 10