Young Adult, a not-so-Romantic Comedy starring Charlize Theron as a 35-year-old former prom queen who tries to recapture her youth by winning back her high school sweetheart, reteams writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman for the first time since Juno. The reunion isn’t cause for as much celebration as a little coldblooded high school nostalgia. The film’s an occasionally amusing, but mostly wistful character study about the lifelong wounds of adolescents.
Whether you were that awkward geek everyone picked on, that queen bee social butterfly whose best years ended at graduation, or anyone in between, high school certainly left a lingering emotional sting. Diablo Cody’s previous project, Jennifer’s Body, was a Megan Fox vixen-vehicle all the way, but Cody’s snarky Gen-Y insights were like specks of sunlight on an otherwise rainy day. She used carnivorous she-beasts devouring each other’s boyfriends as a metaphor for “mean girl” cattiness and backstabbing.
With Jennifer’s Body, Juno and now Young Adult, Cody seems fascinated with high school’s particularly cruel social mechanisms. Theron plays Mavis Gary, the most beautiful and popular girl back in the day, whose life has since become a series of disappointments. Her marriage was a bust. Her Minneapolis apartment is a pigsty and she passes out drunk every night still in her clothes. She ghost writes sassy teen-lit novels about a fictional high school called Waverly Place—essentially so she can vicariously relive her glory years through the witchy antics and egocentric stream-of-consciousness of a blonde, spoiled cheerleader named Kendall. Despite her malcontent, Mavis finds comfort in the fact that she managed to escape the anonymous hick town of her youth—Mercury, MN—and move to the big city.
When she finds out her old jock boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), has welcomed a new baby with his young bride, Mavis spontaneously packs up and drives home to Mercury for the first time in years. Theron, a richly expressive actress of Kim Novak-type beauty, plays Mavis with a permanent sneer and arrogance that’s ironic in its self-delusion. She’s all bottled-up insecurity and lost-in-the-past dislocation. She hides from reality via never-ending episodes of Kendra, The Kardashians, and Jersey Shore—shows about overgrown high school girls—and dotes on a bouncy pocket pooch that would look perfect next to Paris Hilton. When she dolls herself up to go meet Buddy at a local restaurant, she does it with an obsession and religiosity that looks both cleansing and flagellating.
Pedicures, manicures, facials, and suffocating dresses: Mavis is a plastic princess hiding a miserable drunkard. And she’s only fooling herself. After arriving back in town, she is horrified to learn that Buddy is actually happy in his simple life. She hatches an insidious plan to steal him back. Interestingly, her only ally in town is a toy collecting moonshiner and outcast from school named Sam (Patton Oswalt), who she once knew only as “the hate crime guy”. While Mavis’s adolescent trauma causes her to neurotically pluck bald spots in her head, Sam was actually physically assaulted by classmates and left crippled for life.
The pairing of the two feels like a bit of a contrivance: why would a woman stuck in a regressive state of immature high school snobbery be caught dead with a loser like Sam? Nevertheless, it ends up being one of the film’s sharpest and most heartfelt gestures—that yesteryear’s alpha dog and runt could reconvene years after the fact and come to find that they are kindred spirits in more ways than they could ever imagine. In the film’s most astute and gratifying scene, Mavis partially redeems her past cruelties through Sam, in an impossibly fragile moment in which both are finally on the same level.Adversely, Young Adult isn’t too interested in character arcs, absolutions, quick fixes or easy answers. Cody thankfully tones down the quirky dialogue and edgy characters of her normal universe; instead, she focuses on the razor fangs and protective shells of the real human animal. With leftovers of Up In The Air’s melancholic solitude, the final minutes of Reitman’s film have a bravely authentic and appropriately anti-Hollywood nihilism. Young Adult isn’t about seeking forgiveness or Amy Heckerling’s “makeovers of the soul”; it’s about 21st century cynicism transmitted through a post-grad’s distended adulthood anxiety. To a new generation of young adults who are finding it harder and harder to grow up, this smart, but acrimonious comedy-drama seems to shout out in Mavis’ own agitated inflection: Life’s Tough, So Deal!