Young Adult, Jason Reitman’s newest film, is two things: a quirky, sad, funny movie, and a case study in the perils of uncontrolled nostalgia. The film centers on Mavis Gary, played with zeal by Charlize Theron, a ghost writer on a once-popular, soon-to-be-cancelled series of young adult novels. Fresh off a divorce and dealing with professional uncertainty (not to mention living in a state unbefitting the glamorous city girl she believes herself to be), she receives an e-mail from her high school squeeze, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), showing off him and his wife’s brand new baby girl.
Being in a tailspin already, Mavis does not take this well, but rather than shake it off like a grown up, she instead decides that she and (the happily-married) Buddy are meant to be together and packs up and heads off to her hometown (quietly, so as not to wake up her one night stand, who she leaves sleeping… in her bed). From there comes a chain of increasingly uncomfortable events that see Mavis put even more emotional distance between her and a life she left long ago.
Along the way, she bonds with former classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt), a fellow arrestedly-developed 30-something (though for wildly different reasons), and it’s this relationship that forms the twisted, black heart of the film. These unlikely kindred spirits don’t really help each other grow, but they do give each other someone with whom to be brutally honest about everything. Matt is the only one with whom Mavis can be comfortable and the only one who can clearly see through the heavily manicured artifice she carefully applies every day.
It’s a brutal, yet tender relationship, one befitting the vulgar, emotional movie that encompasses it. This is a film where the most comfortable and fun scene involves Theron and Oswalt bonding over their mutual hatred of a guy in a wheelchair. It’s a strange balance that the film strikes, and it’s a wonder that it pulls it off with as much vigor as it does. And most of the credit for that goes to Theron.
Her performance as Mavis is one of the most daring tightrope walks you will ever see from a mainstream actress. She plays Mavis as an obviously broken, sad woman who you can’t help but feel for, but who is also an unapologetic, manipulating sociopath who doesn’t understand why the world doesn’t bend over backwards for her. She’s brazen and horrible, sure, but she’s also so crushingly pathetic that your heart goes out.
Also in top form is Oswalt who continues his streak from Big Fan of using his well-established sarcastic geek persona as a mask for deep wells of vulnerability. And credit is also due to Jason Reitman, who continues to grow as a filmmaker with each movie. There is a shot late in the film showing all the knick-knacks and pop paraphernalia that Oswalt has in his bedroom that almost directly mirrors the establishing sequence of Ellen Page’s bedroom in Juno. But whereas the shots in that film seemed to say, “This is exactly who this girl is, isn’t she awesome?” These near-identical shots now say, “This is exactly who this guy is, isn’t that sad?”
It’s subtle, but it hits on a major theme of the film. As I touched upon way back in the first paragraph, rampant nostalgia and the pitfalls of such are constantly on the fringes of Young Adult. Whether it’s Oswalt’s figurines demonstrating just how pathetic his life is, or Mavis’ OCD-like obsession with her and Buddy’s song coming back to bite her once she realizes he has repurposed it for his wife, or simply the notion of a woman trying to reclaim her glory days when literally everybody has moved on to better things; the film goes out of its way to demonstrate that the past is something to look back on, not cling to. Now if only our protagonist would learn that for herself.
Posted under Kyle's Adventures in Pop Culture
This post was written by Kyle on December 29, 2011