6 February 2012


Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody has made her name writing scripts about smart-alecky adolescents, like Juno and Jennifer's Body, and, apparently frustrated with journalists asking if she fixates on younger characters, her latest script is Young Adult, about a woman who is really, completely, dangerously fixated upon adolescent fantasies. It's also nothing like either of her previous, more upbeat features- this film is as dour and cynical as the day is long.

Mavis Gary is an author of young adult fiction, more specifically a ghost writer, on a popular series that is coming to an end. Up against a deadline on the final book, she's suffering from writer's block. While procrastinating online, she discovers that her high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade, now married to someone else, has just welcomed a baby daughter. In a fit of delusion about the chance of rekindling with her old flame, Mavis ups sticks and returns to her hometown in Minnesota, and resolves to wreck Buddy's home life and "rescue" him.

The reunion between Cody and her Juno director Jason Reitman seems like a pretty good fit for Young Adult. Coming off of the critical success of Up in the Air, another story about a disaffected adult, Reitman picks up some of Juno's idiosyncrasies once again. Juno was quite a subversive teen movie, and this film is basically a reprisal of all those other, more conventional teen movies of the 1990s, in which popular kids are popular, and thus happy. The character of Mavis Gary is a thesis about how popular and attractive girls cope once they leave high school and enter the real world.

Charlize Theron is fantastically horrible as Mavis, all disaffected and bitchy, and yet juvenile and piteous in her delusions. Mavis is an alcoholic, but the most telling moments in Theron's performance are those before she picks up the bottle to drink the pain away; those are the moments when Mavis, if never sympathetic, is at her most vulnerable. People have been telling me since last June that I'm mad to have enjoyed Bad Teacher, and this does make that film look worse in retrospect, for being a commercial comedy that casts Cameron Diaz in more or less the same role, without taking that character to task in the way that Cody and Reitman study Mavis.

But then the problems with Bad Teacher were based around the fact that the obligatory commercial comedy arc of that film was to turn Diaz's Elizabeth Halsey from a truly loathsome character into a slightly less detestable one. Cody sticks to her guns in making sure that Mavis is never likeable, only pitiful, all the way through, and Reitman makes good on the character study by making small-town Minnesota look as drab and washed-out as possible while amping up the 90s alt-rock that soundtracked Mavis' glory days. He also gets a phenomenal performance out of Patton Oswalt, as Matt, a tragic figure who has nothing but resentment for his high school days.

Matt is a much more sympathetic figure, more justifiably cynical than any of the other characters in the film, and so the film is really at its best when he and Theron share the screen. It's a bizarre relationship between the two, barely qualifying as a friendship and largely focused on Matt telling Mavis how insane she sounds. Only remembering Jason Bateman's character in Juno could ever make you think that Patrick Wilson's Buddy could ever reciprocate Mavis' advances, and the expectations of that particular type of male character are considered and subverted throughout.

Young Adult is a far less likely crossover hit than anything the writer or director have done in the past, but their latest collaboration boasts impressive characters and a commitment to the darkly funny feel-bad mood that sits completely counter to the high school movies that it follows. Theron and Oswalt have superb, if unlikely chemistry, and both actors are excellent. The film's not hugely narrative-driven, because it's a character study, but it doesn't just take forever to go nowhere, clocking in at 93 minutes of dour, yet delightfully cringe-worthy post-teen movie angst.

Young Adult is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Young Adult, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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