Synopsis: Teen lit writer and one-time prom queen Mavis Gary (Academy Award-winner Charlize Theron) returns home determined to recapture her fading glory by winning back her married high school sweetheart. But her unlikely plan sends Mavis’ life spiraling further out of control, until she forms an unlikely bond with another old classmate who forces her to face adulthood’s harsh realities. Critics rave this darkly hilarious film from Academy Award-winning Writer Diablo Cody and Academy Award-nominated Director Jason Reitman is “brilliant and brave” (A.O. Scott, The New York Times).
Young Adult 7.75
eyelights: its bitterly realistic tale. Charlize Theron’s performance.
eyesores: the ratio of drama vs humour. its focus on alcohol.
Mavis Gary: “I have a lot of problems.”
Sandra Freehauf: “Can’t you get a new dress?”
‘Young Adult’ is a dramedy about a 37-year old ghost writer who wakes up one morning and decides to go back to the home town she long left behind to rekindle an old flame – at all costs. The film was written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, both of ‘Juno’ fame. Cody’s intention was to explore an adult who still clings to her teenage years late in life.
I was drawn to it by my love of ‘Up in the Air‘, which Reitman also directed. However, I had mixed feelings after having seen the trailers: to me, it felt like fluff, like a less over-the-top ‘Bad Teacher’ (or some such thing). But, when it was eventually released on home video, I started to read reviews and everything that I read was positive. Very positive, in fact.
So, one evening, in one of those über-rare moments when my gf and I ended up at the video store, I recommended that we give it a try. Everything I read had left me pretty confident that it would be a quality picture, if not a full-out winner. And, anyway, there wasn’t much else in the New Arrivals section that would be appropriate and/or that she or I hadn’t already seen.
‘Young Adult’ took me by surprise.
For one, it wasn’t nearly as funny as I expected it to be: aside from a few acerbic moments, it was mostly a drama. Secondly, it’s not at all inspirational in the way that ‘Up in the Air’ was (I can’t speak for ‘Juno’, because, as of this writing, I have yet to see it. I know, I know…). In fact, although it starts off light in moments, it ends up being very serious, disturbing even.
And in some ways, ‘Young Adult’ has to be commended for this. Unlike one’s average Hollywood dramedy, it doesn’t serve up the usual mélange of syrupy messages and candy-coated dénouement. Hardly. This motion picture, if anything, tries to offer audiences a slice of life that rings true to its protagonist, a shallow, neurotic, delusional, entitled and self-serving egotist.
She’s no pretty woman, and so it goes that she wouldn’t lead the beautiful life.
I was sort of impressed with Charlize Theron for taking the part: she’s no Aileen Wuornos, but Mavis Gary is a pretty detestable character, someone that I would find terribly frustrating in real life. And in an industry that thrives on glamour and congeniality, it’s not exactly obvious for a major star to portray beauty as inherently meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
At first glance, Mavis Gary would appear to be everything that most women would aspire to be: beautiful, independent, and successful. She would also seem like the kind of woman that many men would beeline for, who would turn heads everywhere she goes. Except that she’s basically unhappy, unfulfilled, incapable of enjoying what she’s got and of getting what she wants most. And she doesn’t know why.
The key problem: Mavis still leads her life the way she did in high school. (Hence the title.)
She doesn’t seem to have made any progression in life. She is absolutely terrible at interacting with other human beings, something that likely began at home (ex: at one point, she tries to tell her parents that she’s an alcoholic and they don’t listen to her at all; they just scoff her concern away). She uses people, can be cruel to them, has a blatant disregard for their feelings and needs. All that matters is herself.
From my perspective, Mavis is erratic and might even have mental issues. Aside from the aforementioned alcoholism, her narcissism is taken to such an extreme length that she completely loses perspective on reality, engaging people as though she were the only person in the world, irrespective of their commitments, responsibilities and other relationships (ex: she tries to seduce her happily-married ex and makes a scene at his daughter’s party).
In some ways, ‘Young Adult’ is the reverse of ‘Up in the Air’. Whereas the former is about a man who is delighted with his life, begins to question it, and ends up reconnecting with his loved ones in a new and more fulfilling way, ‘Young Adult’ is about a woman who is depressed with her life, looks to the past for a solution to her problems and ends up burning her bridges, only to reinforce her way of being in the world.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
The ending is slightly ambiguous, but it doesn’t suggest that Mavis will ever improve her life. If anything, the impression that we get is that the only lesson she’s “learned” in all of this is that there’s no salvation in her past: she chooses to never go back to her old life, having no more illusions about it, no longer imagining that it will save her. But her future remains inexplicably bleak.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
She is essentially clueless and unrepentant – not exactly admirable individual, let alone a role model.
The performances are pretty decent across the board, but they rest entirely on Theron’s shoulders. Thankfully, she is most capable, and in her hands Mavis becomes entirely believable. Patrick Wilson, who plays Buddy, her ex, is decent here, but I’ve seen him sharper. And Patton Oswalt, who plays Matt, a former high school peer that she befriends, brings an interesting mixture of quirk and pathos to his part.
If there was anything that I relished in the film, bizarrely enough, it was that Buddy’s spouse, Beth (played by Elizabeth Reaser), was in all-mom rock band. As far as I was concerned, it was nice to see an all-female band, because there aren’t so many in media, and we could do with a larger presence of skilled women in the rock world – as opposed to pre-packaged pop starlets of limited talent.
I also liked that they were all adults, because it dispels the notion that these moms should devote their whole lives to their kids and spouse – a fallacy that holds true even now, in 2013, decades after groundbreaking feminism has opened tons of doors for women. That was nice to see, because I despise the notion that men can continue to be “boys” into adulthood, but women can’t be “boys” too.
Having said this, I was disappointed that their band sucked real hard, because it only serves to legitimize the cliché that women can’t rock. Tell that to Lita Ford, or Joan Jett, or Angela Gossow, or Kittie, or L7, or Jack Off Jill, or Draim STH, or The Donnas. Having said that, they were terrible in a way that was rather amusing – in a cringe-worthy sort of way. So I have mixed feelings about that aspect.
All this to say that ‘Young Adult’ earns my respect for its intentions, but it also disappointed slightly. It’s probably just a question of expectations, something that I plan to adjust in the future. Because there will be at least one other (if not more) viewing: the lead character may be pathetic, making the picture slightly grim, but there are a few chuckle-friendly moments along the way.
And I suppose that this uncomfortable duality is in keeping with the seeming contradiction of the words “Young” and “Adult”. They’re just not always an easy pairing.
“It’s really difficult for me to be happy. And then for other people it just seems so simple. I know. They just grow up and they’re so fulfilled.”
Date of viewing: September 27, 2013
Spot on analysis of the film. I interpret the ending the same way. This is one of my favorite films, because I can relate to Mavis a lot. Like you say it’s more of a drama, but re-watching it with my brother I noticed quite a few funny scenes. And I love her dog! 🙂
Yeah, I agree, there is a lot of subtle humour. I’m sure that it will come to the fore as I was it again. one of my favourite moments in the whole picture is when Mavis arrives at the hotel with her dog and insists it’s not in the travel bag – even though the clerk tells her it’s okay to bring pets in. TOO funny! 😛
haha! Love that scene 🙂
Also did you know that specific dog breed always smiles? I found that to be ironic since Mavis also has the same face. She hasn’t aged because she’s depressed, it’s even referenced at some point.
Hmmm… I’m curious to know if that was an intentional choice by the filmmakers. Also I wonder what that says about the character, that she would pick such a dog. What do you think?
From what I know they didn’t pick it on purpose, Jason just liked the dog (it’s not a dog actor, just a regular dog). Still found it fitting for the character. In a way she has completely shut herself off from anyone that could challenge her or call her out on her bullshit. So a “complacent” dog makes sense.
Hmmm… that’s an interesting perspective. I’ll have to consider that the next time I watch it. it just may be sooner than I’d imagined… 😉