Diablo Cody proves that she isn’t just a one-trick pony in this disarmingly deep musing on growing up from Jason Reitman.
After bursting onto the scene with the impossibly good debut Thank You For Smoking, Jason Reitman has continued to go from strength to strength, with the more recent Up in the Air earning him Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and as a director. Yet the movie that became a major pop-cultural footnote was Juno, the debut screenplay from ex-stripper Diablo Cody. While both creators went on to better things, Juno was perhaps their weakest work, reveling a little too much in its own self-conscious cleverness to deliver any lasting impact. With Young Adult, Reitman and Cody collaborate for the first time since 2007.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a recently divorced ghost-writer of young adult books, who decides that she needs to reconnect with her small-town lost love Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). The only problem is that Buddy is now happily married with a newborn baby, a fact that Mavis bloody-mindedly overlooks in her singular pursuit of her man. When she arrives, things don’t go entirely to plan, and she starts to come a little (more) unhinged. Simultaneously restraining her and enabling her is high school classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), severely handicapped as a result of a misguided hate-bashing during high school.
In some ways, Young Adult is an American version of the British television series Nighty Night, in which a completely irredeemable character doggedly pursues a married man, who seems to remain oblivious. While Mavis is not quite as maliciously pathological as the lead in that series, she is undoubtedly psychotic, completely unaware of the emotions of the people around her, and misreading every sign from Buddy as a direct piece of flirtation.
When we first meet Mavis, she is perpetually drunk or hungover in her high-rise Minnesota apartment, her television permanently tuned to reality television and accompanied only by her small dog she calls Dolce. This is the most adult we see Mavis, having evidently held it together long enough to acquire at least the bare-bones of maturity. Yet as she travels back to the place of her youth, her true nature emerges and we discover just how displaced she is. Even as the most beautiful woman in a small town, Theron has never exuded less glamour (shy of Monster, of course), nor given as truthful a performance.
Young Adult broadly speaks to the identity of a generation struggling to reconcile themselves with the idea the world moved on, leaving behind those stuck in the past. Superficially, this is represented by the Minnesota locale’s trappings of bands Black Flag and The Breeders, ever-present in bars and on t-shirts, and Teenage Fanclub’s tune “The Concept” (which Mavis listens to obsessively) sitting alongside The Replacements’ “Achin’ to Be” as a soundtrack to the early-90s time and place that Mavis is stuck in.
Then there is the character of Matt, in an award-worthy performance by Oswalt, embittered not simply because his high-school bashing has left him physically deformed and unable to connect with anybody emotionally or sexually, but once people discovered that he was never gay, he was simply forgotten as another random beating. Painting and customising retro action-figure, and distilling liquor in his garage, he is just as much of a lost boy as the lead. The irony is, of course, that Mavis never looked at him once at school, despite sharing neighbouring lockers, and although he is the physical opposite of her, becomes Mavis’ closest confident during her early-life crisis.
Diablo Cody loses the conceit of tapping into a particular Valley way of speaking, preferring to mock it through the fictional novels her character writes, and for the first time speaks almost directly to the audience. While her characters have largely been women with an obvious socially stigmatised problem (Juno‘s teen pregnancy, United States of Tara‘s dissociative identity disorder), they have always been hiding far more personal problems. Young Adult‘s conclusions aren’t always satisfying, and it occasionally slips up in its internal consistency, but it will resonate with anybody who is still searching for their place in the world, even those who know they will never escape their predetermined lot.
Young Adult is released in Australia on 19 January 2012 from Paramount.