In the wink of a young girl’s eye
Director Jason Reitman (Son of Ivan Reitman, a pretty well known director himself) has made some of the most easily digestible, yet incredibly smart films of the past few years. He has an impressive level of discernment when choosing projects and a penchant for protagonists who are hard to like but impossible to resist. His first film, Thank You for Smoking (2005), is about a big tobacco spokesman who spends as much time lying and spinning as he does trying to be a good father to his twelve year old boy. True, everybody in Juno (2007) is pretty damned likable, but 2009’s Up in the Air features a protagonist who has spent so much time travelling that he’s lost the ability to connect with anyone. Also, he fires people for a living, so there’s that. And now we have Young Adult (2011), which features an alcoholic young adult book ghost writer desperately clinging to her high school glory days and teetering on the brink of insanity.
Written by Juno writer Diablo Cody, Young Adult is just as clever but far less self aware. It doesn’t try so hard. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) has. . . hang ups, we’ll call them, but they’re introduced with great simplicity and subtlety. For instance, when she receives an email announcing the birth of her former high school beau’s first child, she does not “freak out.” Not in the traditional sense, at least. Instead, she simply prints it out and spends large chunks of time staring at it (totally not freaking out)!
As I mentioned before, Mavis is clearly an alcoholic. But we don’t get the obligatory drunken stumbling, slurred speech and rows of liquor bottles. We do see Mavis wake up every morning face down on her bed, on top of the covers. She doesn’t appear to drink at home, but when she goes out she always seems to have just a few too many. Always. It’s the kind of drinking habit that might get your friends whispering behind your back, if you had any. It’s definitely the kind that sneaks up on you.
Eventually, Mavis comes to the conclusion that things have not shaken down for her the way they should have and that something absolutely must be done about it. Her job as a ghost writer for a popular young adult series isn’t quite as glamorous as being the actual author, and her lonely, one-bedroom apartment could be bigger. And why didn’t her marriage work out?! She’s awfully pretty, after all. Perhaps if she had married Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), her high school sweetheart, everything would have been different. There’s only one way to find out, and soon we find Mavis on a road trip back to her home town blaring a mix-tape Buddy had made for her on infinite loop. Mavis to the rescue.
It turns out that not much has changed ‘round these parts. She pretends to be disgusted by it, but everyone seems so happy. Are they just too stupid to know that they’re miserable? Too simple? At the local bar she bumps into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), whom she doesn’t really remember — despite having had a locker right next to him in high school — until he mentions getting beaten near to death by a group of bullies who thought that he was gay. “You’re the hate crime guy!” You’d be hard pressed to find a guy as patient as Matt.
Mavis reveals her plan to him (after a few drinks, of course): Convince Buddy that he’s miserable and sweep him off to Minneapolis with her to start a new life together. Never mind that he’s already married and celebrating the birth of his first child. To Mavis, these things are mere stumbling blocks. Besides, babies are “boring.” Matt does not approve, but you get the impression that he’s not ungrateful for having been invited to the shenanigans, which I shall not spoil for you.
Charlize Theron’s performance is fantastic. It’s not as showy as her transformation in Monster (2003), but it is more nuanced. Patton Oswalt is proving himself to be a pretty interesting character actor (see Big Fan 2009 if you think his performance came out of left field), and Patrick Wilson is pitch-perfect as well. It’s such a shame that this film came and went without much notice. It was originally marketed as a comedy, which it is not. Most of the film’s laugh out loud lines are presented in the trailer. That’s not as to say that it isn’t funny, it’s just not broad comedy funny. It’s funny because it’s sad, because it’s true. Mavis may sound like a total nightmare and that’s because she is, but there’s an important scene towards the end of the film where she visits her parents and we get a glimpse of the reasons why. Her parents still have a picture of Mavis and her ex-husband on their wall. Her father remembers him as being a “nice guy.” Her mother concurs, adding that it is a “nice” memory. When Mavis announces that she thinks that she might be an alcoholic, they laugh it off. She’s just being dramatic. Isn’t that nice?
Kevin Mattison is co-editor of The Idler, and a filmmaker and videographer. You can follow him on Twitter at @kmmattison.