I remember my first day as a freshman in college. As I walked around the campus, taking in the sights and sounds of college life, I felt an air of change. Upon completion of my first class, I knew what it was: High school life and everything that emanated from there of, was killed. Immaturity, cliques and popularity vanished into thin air. What existed on campus was the notion that what happened in high school lacked any form of relevance. We were all just a collection of students, trying to make it through a semester without failing classes, missing a social gathering and taking in mass amounts of pizza. It amazed me how the school dynamic changed within the completion of high school. Yet, I imagine there are people out there who, despite high school being but a speck of dust in their timeline, can’t quite circumvent their three-year stint in a building they likely bitched about incessantly. What is there to say about those who time warp as a means of gratification? They should probably get over themselves, a clear lesson that escapes Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a thirty-seven year old writer that occupies Young Adult.
Mavis is struggling in every aspect of adult life. She’s a divorced author that writes for a sinking teen fiction series. Most of all, Mavis seems to be in a perpetual state of drunkenness during all hours of the day. This is only known through her tired eyes, outlandish behavior and penchant for sleeping in with a Diet Coke bottle by her side. Despite living in a big city (Minneapolis) and having an adult job with pressing deadlines, Mavis is anything but an adult. If anything, she emulates the teens in her stories and the unscrupulous behavior of reality divas. To put it bluntly, we truly have no love for Mavis as a person. Worsening the situation for Mavis is her need to resurrect her love for Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), an old flame from high school. Upon getting a birth notification from Buddy, Mavis makes it a point to avoid her responsibilities and visit Buddy back in her hometown of Mercury. What ensues are moments of awkward interactions as Mavis attempts to steal Buddy from his wife and newborn child. No matter how badly Mavis fails in making a connection, she dreams up imaginative delusions that stretch reality into fiction. Noticing this is Matt (Patton Oswalt), a high school reject that Mavis inadvertently encounters. Matt provides Mavis with unexpected reality checks as their paths cross in a town that couldn’t be any smaller. Unlike Mavis, high school was a three-year prison for Matt. It was a place that gave him a burden that weighs down his pudgy frame.
Where Mavis romanticizes her high school exploits, Matt wants to bludgeon them into oblivion. By having an astute perspective on high school and life, Matt foolishly attempts to lay the groundwork for Mavis’ miracle transformation. Refreshingly, the screenplay refuses to craft an arc for Mavis that mainstream audiences can feel good about. There are certainly moments that expose Mavis to be a broken character, but she continuously fails to address her problems with a sense of urgency and care. For all intents and purposes, she likes where she is in life. With this in mind, casting Charlize Theron as Mavis is nothing short of genius, as it ensures that Young Adult doesn’t become an insufferable venture for viewers. Amidst the sagging eyes, unflattering sweat pants and lack of moral compass, Theron finds just enough humanity in this ever-growing monster to justify our time. Director Jason Reitman magnifies this notion by gluing the camera to Charlize’s face when a little lie crumbles. Even more so, there’s a level of desperation in Theron’s voice as she attempts to convince herself that a small kiss on the lips is a make out session. It’s a minuscule attribute but it pays dividends for when Mavis’ gargantuan breakdown finally occurs.
If there was one downfall to the character of Mavis, and Young Adult as a whole, it would be that she truly doesn’t have enough encounters to demonstrate her ill behavior. In a small town chalk full of potential showdowns, Cody’s screenplay finds itself too fixated on Mavis’ lust for Buddy. Granted, that’s kind of the point, but at the same time, for a woman who has as much hate thrown her way, there should be more interactions between her and those she left behind. Whether it’d be a collection of old friends or even those she verbally assaulted in high school, there is a level of drama and comedy that the script misses by focusing too much on Buddy. Because of this tight focus, the film can become tedious. Helping the film loosen its lovelorn ties is Patton Oswalt as Matt. Behind the barbs he throws, there lies a seething anger that anyone can understand and an emotional rawness that resonates in his physical stature. Supplanting himself as one of the finest supporting actors of the year, Oswalt makes great use of Theron and develops a palpable chemistry between two unstable people. Together, Theron and Oswalt make Young Adult an engaging character study about a woman who just can’t seem to grow up. I can’t say that Young Adult is a complete piece of work. It feels like a draft or two away from being a true gem. Nonetheless, the acting and Reitman’s deft ability at exposing the humor behind the macabre enhance Cody’s already solid screenplay. Hopefully, viewers have the patience to let this dark film run its course.