Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a divorced young adult fiction author returns to her small hometown to relive her glory days and attempt to reclaim her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) who is nowhappily married with kids. When returning home proves more difficult than she thought, Mavis forms an unexpected bond with former schoolmate (Patton Oswalt) who's had a particularly difficult time moving on in life.
Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, the creative core that made Juno a voice for the disillusioned wise-arse in us all, reteam for a far more pessimistic and whole lot less funny view of a woman-on-the-outer with their follow-up effort, Young Adult. In Charlize Theron, they ably replace Ellen Page with a similarly rich role for a supremely talented actress, but audiences will find this misfit’s journey a far bleaker slice of middle-American social displacement.
From the opening shot, Cody and Reitman signal that this is not going to be a film that offers cheap emoting. A woman’s anguished meltdown echoes across the grey cityscape of Minneapolis, but a sly reveal sets the tone for Young Adult – the shrill weeping belongs to reality-TV oddity 'Kendra’, her tearful episode blaring from the apartment of Theron’s Mavis Gary. Gary is oblivious to the noise and the pain; she is sleeping off what we come to realise is a nightly ritual of boozing and, occasionally, meaningless sex.
Gary, a hack novelist whose long-term paycheque as a ghost writer of 'young adult literature’ is about to close out, decides to head home to suburban Minnesota when she receives news that her high-school sweetheart Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) has had his first child. She has no regard for the joy of a firstborn (she thinks the child ugly when she first lays eyes on it); she believes she can steal the man of her teenage dreams back.
The smart-mouth tartness that made Cody’s Juno script an Oscar-winner is evident in Young Adult. But Page’s Juno had a more-or-less hopeful worldview and her cynicism was tinged with romanticism; for Theron’s Mavis, a 36-year-old drunk on a path of self-destruction, cynicism and selfishness are the motivating factors in everything she does. When she befriends Matt (a terrific Patton Oswalt), a high-school classmate made lame after a homophobic hate-crime, it is so that he can fuel the sense of superiority she knew as a high-school princess; his words of adult wisdom only infuriate Gary.
In Juno, the 'Matt’ character was Michael Cera’s Paulie Bleeker. Paulie was paid due respect by Cody; when Juno went to him at the film’s end, it was out of love. Oswalt’s Matt, as his name suggests, exists entirely for Gary to cleanse herself of life’s clinging realness; when Mavis wakes Matt after her horrible naming-party implosion, it is to dominate him with all she has left – the gift of her sex. The rejected prom queen believes she is sticking it to the quarterback hunk by sleeping with the school loser.
Which would make for a saucy high-school melodrama, but Young Adult is peopled not with spotty teens but thirtysomethings facing the consequences of their teen choices. Diablo Cody is not down on small-town parenthood – Buddy and his nice-girl wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), are sweet and a bit dim, but they are good, honest folk; Mavis’ parents (Jill Eikenberry; Richard Bekins) are ambivalent to the wreck their daughter has become (when she bluntly tells them 'I think I’m an alcoholic", they remain fixated on the dashed hopes they held for her as a teenager). Nor is Cody bitter towards those that have chosen suburban life over big smoke glory. The 'conscience’ character in the film is Oswalt’s Matt, who gets to delivers the film’s funniest line just when the film needs it most.
Instead, Diablo Cody seems determinedly down on her lead character and equally determined to take her audience with her. There is a nihilistic trajectory to Mavis Gary’s narrative; when she stares at the damage done to her old-bomb car after the weekend in her hometown, you just know she is going to get back inside and keep driving. Charlize Theron captures Mavis’ emptiness precisely; Reitman is working with darker themes and more damaged personalities than ever before. This is a surprisingly downbeat piece of filmmaking for a modern studio film, for which we should be very grateful. Whether that makes it in and of itself an entirely worthwhile endeavour is debatable.