In 2007, generally unknown Minnesota writer Diablo Cody became a rare thing in the movie biz — a celebrity screenwriter — when her first script, Juno, became a critical and commercial hit and garnered Cody an Oscar. The story of a precocious teenager dealing with an unintended pregnancy, Juno was so cute and Cody's personal story so colorful that both film and scribe inspired an unsurprising backlash.
Four years later, with one big-screen bomb (Jennifer's Body) in between, Cody has paired with Juno director Jason Reitman again for a ferocious comeback in the form of Young Adult, which, like Juno, is a quotable comedy set in small-town/suburban Minnesota and featuring a female lead.
But that's where the comparisons end. Young Adult's language is tart and zingy but toned-down, lacking Juno's overbearing slangy-ness. And where Juno's imperfect protagonist — an adolescent facing adult decisions — was meant to be someone you rooted for, Young Adult's Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) — a 37-year-old still reliving high school in her head — is more likely to provoke derision.
When we first see Mavis, she's waking up rough in her slovenly Minneapolis condo, bloodshot from the night before and staggering into her day when a morning email check produces something unexpected: a baby announcement from the wife of her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson), who still lives back home in small town Mercury, Minnesota.
Complaining about this to a former classmate also living in the Cities, Mavis muses, "Can you imagine still living in Mercury? It's like he's a hostage," and devises a plan: go to Mercury and steal him back.
Mavis, it turns out, was a "psychotic prom queen bitch," as one character sneers, and now ghostwrites a low-end high school romance-book series ("Waverly Prep") that's on the verge of being discontinued, drawing on her own "mean girl" high school experiences, eavesdropping on teenagers at the mall, and surreptitiously injecting her own current life into the scenarios for material. In Young Adult, Mavis' ongoing work for the series' finale serves as a kind of subjective voiceover commentary on her Mercury plot. She arrives back home as the girl who made it out — a glamorous writer from the big city — and seems to be treated as such by her former classmates and neighbors. But Young Adult yields gradual revelations about the extent of Mavis' real problems and the extent to which those around her recognize them.
Mavis' young-adult fiction mirrors her own arrested adolescence, and she finds an unlikely match back home in the form of Matt (Patton Oswalt), an old high school classmate she runs into at a bar. Mavis finally, barely remembers him — "You're the hate-crime guy!" — and for a good, long while these two thrown-together drinking buddies don't much respect, much less like, each other. And yet they emerge as one of the most interesting and surprisingly affecting on-screen pairings in recent memory.
Initially, Matt is the only one who knows the real reason Mavis is back home, and he swiftly diagnoses her need for therapy. But Matt, bearing physical and emotional scars from a teen tragedy, is similarly stuck in a high school rut, living in his sister's basement, where he paints sci-fi creature models, toys with home distilling, and models a string of '80s/'90s alt-rock band T-shirts.
This is a very strong performance by Theron, one that, in its own way, may be even more lacking in vanity than her make-up-aided, Oscar-winning turn as a serial killer in Monster. And Oswalt inhabits Matt with flawless commitment, not relying at all on his stand-up comedy background.
Mavis' comedic bad behavior suggests Bad Santa territory, and Young Adult is packed with gasping laughs, but Cody, Reitman, and Theron keep her right on the line, never letting her cross over into cartoonish. Mavis warrants a degree of sympathy, from other characters and from the audience, but at the same time, Young Adult denies her an easy, false redemption.
Opening Friday, December 16th