In Young Adult, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody reunite for the first time since Juno to portray a woman almost as “monstrous” as Aileen Wuornos. But instead of a former prostitute turned serial killer, Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary: a 30-something divorcee who is perpetually stuck in adolescence, living the good life of avoiding significant responsibilities. And instead of disturbing drama, Charlize Theron fills this role with sinister laughs. While too obvious at times, Reitman’s film aptly captures the ironic childishness of a certain kind of “young adult.”
Mavis — a ghost author of a young adult fiction series — returns to her small hometown to rekindle a romance with her high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). She has only one minor obstacle standing in the way of her personal happiness and pursuit of true love: Buddy is married with kids. Mavis is convinced that Buddy is held captive in his roles as husband and father, and she is equally sure that he will be thrilled that she has come to set him free from this traditional, boring, and life-ending dilemma called “raising a family.”
Accompanying Mavis in her pursuit of Buddy is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), the requisite ridiculed outcast (“ridicule” is an understatement) who is there to be a listening ear for Mavis. Matt is aware of her obliviousness, but, like his sister, he is also interested in garnering the popular girl’s attention. When Mavis is not taking advantage of opportunities to meet up with Buddy and failing to seduce him away from his wife, she is drinking heavily with “Matt-the-cripple,” hoping to feel better about her fleeting and ineffective high school popularity powers.
Mavis’s essential struggle is her fight to maintain a teenager’s no-strings-attached “freedom” (well, self-absorption disguised as freedom) and still find fulfillment. Reitman’s young adult is myopic to the point of exaggeration, and this contributes to the film’s tendency to overstate its ironies. Yet, Mavis’s over-the-top immaturity also makes for cringe-worthy comedic moments not unlike the Michael Scott variety of uncomfortable laughs in The Office.
While watching Mavis, I kept thinking about Arcade Fire’s song “Rococo.” She’s like one of the “modern kids”, only to Flannery O’Connor-style fictional extremes. Which is to say: Reitman’s young adult is highly ornamented, but severely lacking in substance or authenticity. Mavis moved to the big city to have a better life than the “hicks” she left behind, but our glimpses of Mavis’s “better life” includes a lot of Keeping Up with the Kardashians in her apartment. She proclaims herself a celebrated author, but actually ghost writes for a failing series of awful young adult fiction. She spends time presenting an attractive, put-together appearance, but nearly every personal environment we see her in is dirty. Her idea of love conquering all includes breaking up a marriage, a “thing” that she and Buddy can “beat together” like a cancer. When it is suggested that Buddy “has a life” that Mavis should not interfere with, she responds in exasperation with “no, he has a baby.” And when she is described as a “slut” in reference to her behavior in high school, Mavis thinks she was just being normal.
Thus, the worst part about Mavis’s degenerative behavior is the nearly complete delusion that she lives in. She has convinced herself that she is still the popular girl, still free in ways that others are not, and still progressing toward something that makes her superior to others. In reality, though, she is devolving, and nearly everyone recognizes it but her. When Mavis exposes herself in total humiliation and hate-filled angst at Buddy’s baby shower, it’s no surprise that she turns to Matt-the-cripple for validation in what is perhaps — at least in its grotesquerie — the most Flannery O’Connor-esque scene of all. Having a one-night stand with Matt allows Mavis to still be praised as the all-in-all of her own existence that she perceives herself to be. And her delusion is reinforced.
Yet, as long as she seeks fulfillment in exalting herself and avoiding significant responsibilities, Mavis will continue to pull out her superlative “best” hair. And so will we.