(L-R) Actors Patton Oswalt, Charlize Theron and director Jason Reitman attend the IFP's 21st Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards at Cipriani Wall Street on November 28, 2011 in New York City. (Getty Images)more pics »
The Bottom Line
Should you see it?
In two words: Charlize Theron.
On the surface, Young Adult may seem very similar to Diablo Cody's debut film, Juno, also directed by Jason Reitman. As in Juno, Young Adult centers its story around a female character whose many quirks serve as comic relief from a cringe-worthy storyline. Look deeper, however, and it becomes clear there is much more to Young Adult than what appears onscreen. This 94-minute character-study features a masterful performance from Charlize Theron, one of the best actors working today.
Theron is not blessed with the ornate dialogue that made Juno such a howl in 2007. But this is still very much a Cody film: The writing is one of its main stars. Unlike Juno, there aren't divine moments of screenwriting glory worthy of Oscar enshrinement. But this is a good thing. Young Adult plays it down. The best moments come from Theron's actions, not her dialogue. She is in nearly every frame of this film, and it's not enough. Her character, Mavis Geary, is positively enthralling. Blessed with a verisimilitude that is Cody's real achievement here, Geary invades her little hometown like a tidal wave. In her abject selfishness and callous indifference for anyone else, Geary does something we never expect: she endears herself to us. Cody has written and Theron has delivered a true modern anti-heroine. Young Adult is a beautiful film about ugliness.
Young adult "author" Mavis Geary lives with her Pomeranian in a small Minneapolis apartment. She is recently divorced, pushing 40, and nearing the end of ghost-writing a series of YA books that have had some moderate success. The start of the film finds Mavis rolling out of bed, sucking on a 2-liter of Diet Coke like a baby bottle and procrastinating writing her newest book. Mavis soon finds purpose in an email she receives from her high school boyfriend. The email is a baby announcement, which Mavis takes as a sign he wants to rekindle their relationship. They are "meant to be together." She packs up some clothes, the Pomeranian (named "Dolce"), and heads back to Mercury, Minnesota in her Mini Cooper.
Upon arriving, Mavis concocts a beautiful web of lies to explain her presence (a real estate deal). She sets up drinks with the old flame, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) and commences her routine of getting "loaded," eating fast-food, and writing her book. Her first night out, she meets an ex-classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) at a local bar. Matt was a "gaylord" in high school, but the two strike up a wary friendship, based mostly around the endless supply of bourbon Matt makes in his garage. Mavis reveals her plot to get Buddy back and Matt acts as the voice of reason. He tries his best to discourage her and save her from bitter embarrassment, but Mavis cannot be reasoned with. Her insane determination is unflappable and finds its crest at a party at Buddy's house, where Mavis faces the entire town and the truth.
In the hands of a lesser actress, Mavis Geary teeters on the brink of contentiousness. Her actions are despicable and downright loathsome in some scenes. However, the "psychotic prom-queen bitch" wins us over with some breakthrough moments. An important scene shows Mavis at home with her parents, who she does not tell she is in town. At the dinner table she tells them bluntly, "I may be an alcoholic," and they shrug it off as a joke.
Mavis is utterly alone. Despite her rudeness and narcissism, she is waging a one-woman war of sorts. There is something brave in her pursuit, even if it is ludicrous. Add to that the fact Theron has the intelligence to play Geary with pure conviction. She is so lost in her own quest, it makes watching her all the more fun. There is never a feeling she will succeed or learn from anything that happens to her and this makes Young Adult entirely unpredictable.
What also helps Mavis is the fact Matt likes her. As the film's sympathetic character, his uneasy approval mirrors our own; As he tells Mavis, "Guys like me are born loving girls like you." Their relationship is a classic genre friendship: the popular girl befriends the loser. However, the two characters are so well written and well acted, they avoid cliché and allow the audience to simply enjoy the dynamic. Oswalt seems to know Matt Freehauer intimately. He is smart, quick-witted, but entirely vulnerable. He connects with Mavis as another damaged soul, albeit one from another universe. It's a certainty his performance was also furthered by the talent of Theron. They are a compelling odd couple: the tall beauty and the frumpy comedian.
Ms. Cody has taken a few years off from film to concentrate on her Showtime series, The United States of Tara. The show has had its moments, but Young Adult is her true return to form. She has mastered adolescent language and dialogue in a modern John Hughes-sort of way. Mavis Geary is 37 but walks, talks, and acts 17. Credit must also be given to Reitman: it's no coincidence he has directed Cody's two best works.
In the way Juno captured the hipster trends of 2007, Young Adult has satirized the essence of thirty-somethings in America today. Caught in reality TV purgatory, too many of us eschew the path less traveled to indulge the petty desires of our youths. The tagline for Young Adult is "Everyone gets old, not everyone grows up." By setting the story long after high school has ended, Cody allows us to take a look back at ourselves. We all know Mavis Geary. Some of us are her. Scores of high school films attempt to get at this level of realization. For their part, Cody and Reitman have shed a light on a bit of truth and seem to have the pulse of their generation.
See more photos from the premiere of Young Adult: