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March 10, 2012 / Siobhan Argent

Young Adult – a movie that STILL can’t make Charlize Theron look bad

Oh look! A stunning woman is playing someone so emotionally vapid that she is an inescapably disgusting, ugly person. No, I wasn’t convinced either.

In Theron’s case, Young Adult can’t dredge up a character with enough ugliness to
mortify this actor’s exterior. If it had, all us normal people would bask in the warm glow of schaudenfreude. As it is, many women (and some men) may sit there fuming over Theron’s complete inability to look horrible even with panda eyes and a chicken-fillet bra set covering her breasts. However, you’ll be more or less convinced by her portrayal of Mavis Gary, the suitably-masculine-named titular character at the heart of this rather debased look at a prom queen who ducks back into town to wreak havoc on the locals.

‘Home’, for Mavis Gary, doesn’t seem to be anywhere. While she enjoyed prom queen social success in high school in her home-town of Mercury, her supposedly flash apartment in Minneapolis looks equally unappealing. Everywhere Mavis goes, dreariness and dullness seem to follow in her wake like an inescapable bad smell. Not that Mavis notices. It may have something to do with the fact that Mavis is a slob who sculls Diet Coke for breakfast, but being a slob and looking fabulous while trying to look trashy seems to be what Mavis does best. She seems more or less content with her job as the ghostwriter of a successful young adult book series, until she receives an email from a high-school flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) announcing the arrival of his first baby.

The cogs turning in Mavis’ head at this point are achingly obvious; I half expect her to drop into the mechanic for a six-month tune. The picture of that dang baby seems to decide things. She’s not going to return to Mercury to congratulate her ex-boyfriend; she’s going there to steal him back from his wife. Naturally.

In the meantime, director Jason Reitman has a jolly old time messing with our sense of emotional openness and all-round social propriety. Mavis is an entitled, angry person who pretty much never toes the line; she’s a complete bitch when other people open up, even while it quickly becomes apparent her own emotional health is stagnating in the past. When she meets ‘hate-crime boy’ Matt (Patton Oswalt), who suffered terrible injuries while they were in high-school together, she enjoys lording her attractiveness over him. Her relationship with Matt is entirely believable; Oswalt doesn’t milk the cute, dorky factor at all, playing Matt as critical of Mavis but entirely asexual. Indeed, Mavis herself seems to have little in the way of sexuality, especially since her attractiveness is so superficial; Reitman likes to juxtapose the exterior and interior selves of Mavis. When she’s out in the world, Mavis reeks of beauty. But when she’s just woken up, she barely seems human.

And while I didn’t know this while watching the film, Diablo Cody (of Juno fame) wrote the screenplay, so it’s no surprise there are all manner of twitchy quirks that do a lot towards helping frame Mavis’ rather awful tendency to run all over the people she hangs out with. It’s probably most noticeable in the completely unprofessional exchanges with the receptionist at a hotel, who notices that Mavis’ large handbag is moving. “Is that a dog in your bag?” the receptionist asks. With a blank stare, Mavis replies, “No,” as the handbag begins to bark.

Mavis’ time in Mercury seems to warp the two sides of the Mavis coin. Depending on who she is talking to, Mavis’ life is either exceedingly exciting or depressingly dull. She lords it over all the people she was used to smothering in high school; the cripples and the dorks, while she reserves her special kind of alcohol-fuelled exuberance for her old flame. She’s bitterly estranged from happiness, so much so that she barely toes the boundary of reality in order to reach some point at which she thinks people might start being jealous of her (which is, after all, her primary aim when she’s not husband-snatching).

Theron darts between shattering heartlessness an moments where tiny slivers of the real Mavis slip through the cracks, suggesting a deranged, heartbroken, emotionally dead woman inside. The ending of this film does play a tad too predictably; it was as though the screenwriter couldn’t bear to leave Mavis as a woman who doesn’t need anyone, or anything, to fix her. She is, at last, given a crutch on which to lean, and while this makes her circumstances more understandable, it didn’t relieve for me the struggle to free female characters from the crippling bounds of emotionally restrictive stereotypes.

If you still have a crush on an old flame, don’t go and see this movie. You may end up killing the fantasy of the old flame for good. But if you’re not in danger of that, the cast do put in a very nuanced, restrained and highly believable performance that allows the truly horrible Mavis Gary to look ugly, even when she’s wearing Charlize Theron’s incredible exterior. Damn it.

More Stuff:

A CNN review which much more succinctly and prettily discusses what I should have discussed in my own review.


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