Young Adult (dir. Jason Reitman, 2011) – Returning to her hometown, Mavis Gary is determined to rekindle a romance with her ex-boyfriend, who is now a happily married man with a newborn daughter.
Young Adult offers an honest, sardonic take on one woman’s arrested development, in a darkly comic and thought-provoking character study.
Some things in the past are hard to let go of. When reality fails to live up to expectations, many look for that one turning point where things had started going wrong. For Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), she believes her decisive moment to be in her teenage years.
Soon after her divorce, she finds herself fixating on a twenty-year-old first love, determined to pick up where she left off. But there is just one problem. Her old flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) is now happily married – with a newborn daughter.
Despite an apparent rom-com set-up, Young Adult unfolds to be much more. The incisive drama explores in-depth the deluded fantasies that quietly follow many into adulthood.
In Mavis, writer Diablo Cody has crafted a sharply written character, bolstered by Charlize Theron’s layered performance. Mavis romanticises her past, if only to escape her future. It is not just her failed romance she holds fast to, but also her expiring success as a YA fiction ghostwriter, and the slipshod lifestyle of her reckless youth.
Unafraid to make her portrayal abhorrently narcissistic and borderline deranged, Charlize Theron lets Mavis’ contempt run loose with little restraint. This is be it towards Buddy’s wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), or their barely month-old infant.
As Mavis projects her insecurities onto the people around her, she spirals deeper into her fool’s paradise. But even as her scathing remarks unveil jealousy, Theron invites empathy with her character’s fragility and self-destructive desperation. Her bitterness quickly reveals old emotional knots waiting to be unravelled. Learning the reasons behind her inability to move on has us grow to sympathise with her.
Mavis’ private moments, where she no longer needs to lie about being content in life, are the most genuine. This is seen in her relationship with ex-classmate Matt Haufman (Patton Oswalt in one of his best roles), the victim of a grievous assault that left him permanently limp.
While polar opposites in high school, they now form an unexpected bond in adulthood, build on shared secrets and more importantly, raw truths.
At one point, Matt persists in his questioning to understand why Mavis would rather knowingly cause pain to Buddy’s family, than to soundlessly move on. After her initial moments of hopeless defence, she finally relents, “He knew me when I was at my best.”
It is a simple yet telling line. Guile in her facade sheds, revealing how it was never really about Buddy. What she had been chasing all along was not a longed-after romance, but the perfect image of her perceived past. It was the popularity and acceptance that she missed, even if that idolatry might have been misguided by adolescent naivety.
Unbridled by political correctness, Young Adult bears a heavy amount of cynicism in a much belated coming-of-age story. Still, optimism remains where you can find it in this exceptional character study, in the reminder that we owe it to ourselves to look to the future, and be better than our past.