"He Talked to Me Like I'm Not Pretty!"
The writing-directing team of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman reunite to present what could be the dark sequel to their sunny, funny Juno. But, instead of examining the student body sub-strata of geeks, we're looking at the sosh's side down there at the very shallow end of the gene pool and the eventual disintegration of High School Dreams.
Trouble is knowing when to wake up. That's the thing about the privileged and the entitled, they never know when the party's done and it's time to go home (and don't even bother asking them to help clean up—that's maid-service). It's the problem of Mavis Gerry (Charlize Theron): her party's over but she's still rocking in the corner, hugging her Maker's Mark bottle, and she picks the perfectly wrong time to go home to Mercury, Minnesota. A writer of moony, self-absorbed children's books (No, no...that's "Y-A's," the contradictory term "Young Adult" novels) about High School life in a series called "Waverly 128", she draws mostly from real life—her own—but with additional snatches of overheard conversations cribbed from teen conversations in fast-food joints and malls.
She need not bother with the latter. Mavis' emotional development is so arrested it should be serving 10 to 20 in "juvie." Her thought processes are still confined to Middling School concerns, even if her behaviors have become more adult in nature, with one marriage behind her and several casual affairs left high and dry, to sleep it off in her bed, and the height of a social life being getting hammered in a bar, anticipating it like a kegger, and her one constant companion an "accessory pet," an animated white hair-ball named Dolce that is left, more or less abandoned, but still capable of the one love Mavis can accept or understand—reverse unconditional. Oh, in our self-absorbed and -absorbed youth culture, she can pass for a grown-up, she's pretty, put-together, and trendy, but on the inside she hasn't graduated, pushing off her writing assignments like she was having to write a term-paper.
In the midst of burbling out her latest teen tome, she gets a message from an old flame (Patrick Wilson) that he and his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) have had their first child...and something in Mavis snaps. She packs up laptop and lap-dog and cruises back to Mercury to recapture her past and maybe new father Buddy Slade and "rescue" him from responsible domesticity, two things she can't fathom or stomach. I mean, have you seen that baby? Ga-ross!
Thing is, she's clueless. Mavis is so stuck in the past rattling around inside her head, you begin to wonder if she might be a little insane, besides insular. Fortunately, she runs into somebody she perpetually ignored in High School—the guy who had the hall-locker next to her that she never noticed existed, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, best thing he's ever done), who had his own development beaten out of him ("Oh, yeah, you're the "hate-crime" guy!" blurts Mavis, tactfully and sensitively) by High School toughs who, in a clear case of High School temperance, tolerance and judiciousness, mistakenly assumed he was gay. Matt, with his twisted body, develops a fascination with Mavis and her twisted logic, only half-heartedly trying to suggest that...you know...she might be a little out of sync with the normal, a notion that she scoffs at, before taking another slug and checking herself out in her mirror.
"You...are a piece of work," says Matt, admiringly. "And you are a piece of shit," comebacks writerly Mavis.
This can not go well, and one wonders where the movie could possibly go and if it can ever be resolved without something being destroyed. The damage being done, though, is to the expectations of the casual movie-goer. Mavis is not your charming debutante "sweet thing" that you'd find in your standard rom-com. She is, as one of her class-hates says, a "psychotic prom-queen bitch," and, though smart and clever, thoroughly unlikable, even when sometimes bordering on the sympathetic. Theron is never afraid of tackling this type of character (she did, after all, win an Oscar for her terrifying Aileen Wournos in Monster) or challenging expectations of the audience, and Cody (with Reitman) has a fine time skewering the traditional "woman-pursues-her-soul-mate" brand of romantic fiction. For that, Young Adult, as cringe-inducing and unsettling as it is, deserves an acknowledgement for being a brave film, risking a lot, while also giving a bitch-slap to the Hollywood romance. It left me in an odd place. I didn't thoroughly enjoy Young Adult, but, at the same time, I recognized that the makers were making a thoroughly professional statement...or at least an obscene gesture...to the too-easy way that love is presented in the movies, something I've railed against myself. This isn't love. It's selfish obsession. And Mavis, like so many of the protagonists in Reitman's films, is an outlier of Society, playing by her own rules, but, as opposed to the others, she reaches no self-awareness, and is absolutely clueless as to where the goal-post is (knowing Mavis, she probably would pick a random spot, easy to reach, and declare it 'good"). One is hesitant to praise or applaud such accomplishments, when the impulse is to show it the door and kick it in the ass on the way out.
Young Adult is a Rental.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012