The new film Young Adult, the latest from the writer/director team of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody of Juno fame, features Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, a writer of young adult fiction living in the Twin Cities who returns to the small town of Mercury, MN to relive her glory days as a high school prom queen and to reclaim her former beau, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). Although it is not without its funny moments, Young Adult is hardly a pleasant film. Yet it is a compelling and instructive one; in a Hollywood culture that celebrates perpetual adolescence, Young Adult is a rarity, an unsparing depiction of what it is like to remain trapped in adolescent fantasy.
Theron’s performance as a hard-drinking narcissist is garnering her the sort of critical acclaim she received for Monster, in which she played a sexually abused prostitute turned vengeful serial killer. Hollywood fell all over itself praising her transformation from a delicately gorgeous blonde to a disfigured, coarse, and violent woman. Here, she keeps her physical beauty but that only serves to highlight the harsh and unfeeling soul that lurks beneath the facade.
When we meet Theron’s character, she is desperately lonely and facing unemployment, as her once-popular series of books is being cancelled. An alcoholic who ends her days with Maker’s Mark and begins each morning with Diet Coke, she is, with little success, trying to write the series finale, when she is a recipient of a group email with news that her now married high school flame, Buddy Slade, has just had a baby. With memories of their youthful romance and of her dominance of the social scene in Mercury, she decides to return to her town and repossess her boyfriend. That she never pauses over the implausibility or impropriety of her plan provides us with an early indicator of just how astonishingly self-absorbed she is. The film’s writing and the supple performance of Theron make the character of Mavis, despite her delusions, believable.
She encounters her parents only by chance, not having thought to alert them that she was back in town. During an uncomfortable dinner conversation, she broaches the topic of her drinking and they change the subject. The awkward silence strikes just the right disconcerting tone and is highly suggestive concerning the roots of Mavis’s disordered psyche. Mavis’s odd friendship with another classmate, Matt Freehauf, a guy she knew in high school only as the object of cruel humor and a brutal beating, is at once twisted and revelatory of her longing for human fellowship and understanding.
Young Adult keeps its distance from its main character’s disorder, but another critically acclaimed film released in recent months, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which also features a deeply depressed young woman (Kirsten Dunst) incapable of adapting to adult life, embraces the main character’s deeply hostile judgment about the human race, namely, that it is evil and merits destruction. Dunst’s performance is at times arresting, as are the film’s visuals, mood, and music (Wagner). But von Trier is less interested in developing her character than it is in deploying her as a vehicle for the expression of a cynical cosmic truth that she alone apprehends.
Young Adult is a more measured film, which does not end up confirming the worst judgments of the depressed, perpetual adolescent, even if, in a convincing twist at the end, it portrays her as retreating to that comfortable universe in which “everyone” in her hometown, is “fat and dumb.”
The denigration of small town life is common enough in Hollywood films. One of the refreshing things about Young Adult is its rather straightforward portrayal of the ordinary families of this small town, particularly the family and friends of Buddy Slade. They are not fashionable or particularly clever or well informed about life beyond their town. But they aren’t fat and stupid either. They are decent, hard working members of their town, intent on building families and supporting one another.
One of the women does call Mavis a “psychotic, prom-queen bitch,” but they also feel sorry for her and thus Buddy’s wife, even after being warned by her friends about Mavis, makes sure she is invited to their house for a party for their newborn baby. Oblivious, Mavis elects to use this public occasion to declare her intentions to Buddy. What follows is public humiliation for Mavis, who is forced to see not only that her plan never had a chance but also that she has been the object of pity from folks she would have spent most of her life pitying, had she ever had a thought or feeling for them.
Mavis has moments of fleeting insight, issuing confessions such as “I’m crazy and no one loves me” and even “I need to change.” Yet, the closer she comes to realizing how much such change would cost, the less likely it is. If that makes for a somber ending, it is, I think, superior to many Hollywood films in which confronting the limitations of prolonged adolescent fantasy leads to an all too facile conversion and a happy ending. As somber and unpleasant as it is, Young Adult is a refreshing take on the motif of the perpetual adolescent.
Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. His first book on popular culture, Shows About Nothing (2000), is being rereleased in a revised, updated, and expanded version by Baylor University Press.
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