We all make our lives into our own personal mythologies. The songs we know by heart, the films we’ve seen countless times, the fond memories we have of a fun night with a friend that years later you discover the other person barely even remembers at all. “The nineties were awesome,” someone says at one point in YOUNG ADULT and, well, they sort of were even if I didn’t always realize it at the time. It was my decade, the one where I was able to set out in life to try to actually do stuff, to discover so many things out there for the first time. As for the present, I still can’t bring myself to think about where the hell this decade is going. But things seemed right in the nineties. There was still hope, misguided as it may have been. I guess that’s the way it always is if you feel like you’re stuck back in a certain place, wishing that you could stay there to get one more shot at a party with a certain girl before the millennium hits and everything gets ruined. YOUNG ADULT, written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, touches on the whole issue of how fucked up people in the Generation X age bracket can still be but never dwells in it as if aware that people from any era can be fucked up, vicariously still living somewhere in the past. The film was released this past December presumably to give it a prime slot for awards consideration and in spite of some buzz this never really happened maybe because of the response to a lead character that I suspect engendered a greater hatred in people than Glenn Close in FATAL ATTRACTION. And whatever her character did to a rabbit, she never treated a dog this way.
Reaction to the film seems to have been somewhat polarized and it never got much traction at the box office at all but the first time I saw the film I just needed to drive around for a while in silence afterwards as the film stayed with me, thinking about not only my past but my present as well. Because we are all trapped in our own present, whether we like it or not and Jason Reitman seems to be one of the few Hollywood directors actually interested these days in at least trying to make movies about what is happening in the world right now, along with what it all does to people. Exactly one week after seeing George Clooney as a corporate hatchet man in UP IN THE AIR back in 2009 I found myself living my own version of one of the film’s scenes when I was laid off from the entertainment news program I had worked at for several years. With YOUNG ADULT, I was struck not only by how some of it reminded me of certain relationships with women I’ve found myself in but one thing that also nagged at me was how oddly familiar the topography in certain shots seemed. Only later did I discover that much of this Minnesota-set film was actually shot near my old stomping grounds back in Westchester Country in New York, giving me a slight shiver. And trust me, I’ve had periods where two-liter bottles of Diet Coke have stacked up in my apartment so at least part of this is personal. I can’t say I’m completely surprised by the response that YOUNG ADULT got from the world but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it, not if some of it sticks with me right down to the bone.
Depressive, alcoholic and beautiful Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) lives alone in Minneapolis, ghost author of the popular but about to be cancelled Waverly Prep series of young adult books. When she receives an email from old high school flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) announcing the baby he’s just had with wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), Mavis becomes consumed with the picture and why he would have sent it in the first place, resulting in the impulsive decision to pack up her tiny dog and travel to her hometown of Mercury where Buddy still lives to get him back, newborn be damned. Going out drinking on her first night at old haunt Woody’s she runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) a former classmate still crippled from a hate crime attack he suffered senior year and Matt quickly becomes the only one who Mavis, shut off from the rest of her life, is able to confide in about why she’s back in town. Their relationship grows even after she meets up with Buddy and begins to put her plan into effect, determined to win him back once and for all.
Mavis Gary lives by her own mythology, consumed solely with what’s going on in her head, into her own journey to recapture her past to a point that she barely seems to understand what that would even mean and blind to the actual reality in front of her as much as Isabelle Adjani in THE STORY OF ADELE H. I can’t say that I have any particular unfinished business with the town I grew up in but I am more than a little aware that there are people in my life who have graduated into the comfort of suburbia in a way that maybe just isn’t a part of my wiring, that separation in the world between people gladly puttering around their kitchen late at night and those who are still out at a bar someplace, maybe a little later than they should be. And there are those women who have looked at me with the sort of piercing stare Mavis has, something that will forever terrify and intrigue me all at once. Maybe that’s what keeps me out there. It’s not quite a miracle that something as dark as YOUNG ADULT got made, not with the talent involved, but it does seem a little surprising that it was able get produced and released by Paramount, a major studio no less. The way things turned out maybe it should have been handled by a boutique label but at least YOUNG ADULT exists, as defiant as it absolutely needs to be, which as far as I’m concerned is all that really matters.
A film with a lead character so locked into her place in life that though she seems to understand at least some of what’s wrong with her she doesn’t seem to have a clue how to correctly change it, instead just choosing instead to sit around eating ice cream and drinking whiskey while watching a pre-teen girl on some reality show singing “We’ve Only Just Begun” (good Christ), falling further into an existence of self-hatred, listening to a certain mixtape from back in the day over and over. Did you know I used to make mixtapes for friends? That was a long time ago. Mavis Gary doesn’t seem to be Diablo Cody, at least not completely, but the film seems to nail something about the process of writing, how much you can just wind up sitting there before you start distracted by anything that comes into your view, going days without actually seeing anyone you know in person and pretending to be on your Blackberry when stuck in public for a few spare moments. At one point someone says, “You sound just like one of your crazy characters,” to her after she makes a crack about the nearby “KenTacoHut” as if she’s expected to be putting every ounce of quirk out there for the world to enjoy, a perceptive little moment of how a writer must feel about being pigeonholed in such a way and Mavis Gary is continually peering at the smiling faces in front of her, wondering if they’re judging her, judging them for even the possibility of judging her.
Essentially the lead character of the reality show in her own head and clearly in denial about the impending end of the Waverly Prep series, watching Mavis deal with the people from her hometown whether she remembers them or not is always fascinating, psychotic prom queen bitch to some, cool local-girl-made-good-in-the-big-city to others. She makes a simple utterance like “Hi, mom” sound like a moment of total defeat and her parents dismissing her statement that she might be an alcoholic with a light dismissive chuckle has to be one of the most dead on accurate, yet still tossed off, moments depicting a family not admitting their child really is an adult (technically, anyway) that I’ve ever seen. But the films’ attitude towards everyone remains grounded even in the most snidely comic moments, with even the sterile plasticness of the Champion O’Malley’s chain restaurant shot in a fairly warm, naturalistic style and Cody’s script stays away from the stylized dialogue that everyone either loved or hated about JUNO, never condescending to anyone with even those characters who only get a few scenes feeling like they have a full life away from this story. Patrick Wilson’s Buddy is in some ways the more settled in version of the Jason Bateman character from the earlier film, once a popular high school jock now totally comfortable with living a normal domestic life in his hometown as if he’s perfectly content to only be cool in someone’s memory. He’s totally fulfilled living in dull suburban glory with Elizabeth Reaser’s Beth, the only character who seems to be able to express any sort of joy as we see in her band playing that Teenage Fanclub song, where she has essentially stolen what Mavis thought was hers, messing with her own mythology but she doesn’t even know it.
Patton Oswalt’s Matt has essentially imploded into living in his childhood home with his sister, drinking at Woody’s and assembling those figurines, never able to move past the horrific beating that crippled him back in high school—it seems like having it be determined that what happened to you actually isn’t a hate crime after all, being told that it essentially didn’t matter, would be just as bad. The chemistry between Theron and Oswalt, not to mention how the scenes between the two of them are written by Cody, makes me wish that there could be another half hour of the film with just the two of them but Reitman admirably has pared his film down to the essentials with not a wasted beat in the entire 93 minutes and none of the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray feel like they need to go back in. Even small moments speak volumes, like that look Mavis and Matt share during the performance by Beth’s band Nipple Confusion--he doesn’t know the exact significance of the song being played but it doesn’t matter and the ultimate connection between these two is what holds through every one of these glances.
The dilemma of Mavis Gary, getting progressively drunker as she proceeds closer to her moment of truth with Buddy, obsessively pulling her hair out, undergoing those repeated makeovers, coming home to that Pomeranian that she barely pays attention to with godawful reality television seeping into her brain at every single moment, is universal but the undercurrent of Generation X getting older is always there, forever prevalent like Matt’s Star Wars-named special bourbon he’s made that Mavis mispronounces. And whether or not the film should be labeled a ‘comedy’ seems to be in the eye of the beholder of whoever’s watching it but for me it is funny, much as some people may not want to admit it--the look she gives Buddy and Beth’s baby, her spitting out ‘whatever, bookMAN,’ to the kid in the bookstore, how she reverts to the mean snark of her old high school self when she talks about Matt with Buddy. But there’s sadness there in terms of where things have gone since the nineties—I was just watching TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and found myself associating how Jason Reitman is clearly trying to make his own version of seventies films with that movie, thinking of how its presentation of Route 66 Americana has turned completely sour in YOUNG ADULT, resulting in a nonstop highway filled with nothing but Kardashians and chain restaurants. Mavis Gary is who she is. But the world isn’t much help either.
It’s not a movie that has resentment towards the people who have been able to find that happiness in their lives but an acknowledgment of the people who feel the other way, who sometimes all they can possibly do is glare at them, knowing nothing but the emptiness that happiness makes them feel. Expressing everything in an internal monologue in the form of the final Waverly Prep book she’s writing Mavis Gary doesn’t grow from her experience and in the end seems relieved that she doesn’t even have to. But she does seem to be able to finally put Mercury in the rearview mirror of her Mini Cooper once and for all. Maybe in her own mind the entire place, not just Buddy and Beth, is just ‘lost at sea’. Beyond that I don’t know because, after all, people don’t really change and, much like the special needs kids taught by Beth, Mavis can never quite form the correct emotions in her own head. She doesn’t seem to express very much about the horrible thing that happened to Matt way back in the past at all, yet her “You’re a piece of shit” to him is meant with total affection, maybe as it should be. And when she puts her hand up to his face near the end, a moment of connection with this person in her life who she never gave a moment’s thought to until just a few days ago, I almost lose it. What does that say about me? What does that say about certain women I’ve been attracted to? What does that say on my feelings about this film, the best work by its writer and director to date? More than once in the past I’ve looked up ex-girlfriends on Facebook, or even some that I wish had been my girlfriend, only to find a profile photo of them smiling and holding a baby. I click away. I don’t go back. Sometimes you really do need to face the future.
Few actresses are as fearless as Charlize Theron is these days and she is one-hundred percent willing to portray Mavis as nasty as possible with not a moment that doesn’t seem genuine. How she downs that first glass of Makers Mark at Woody’s, the absolute defiance she presents in her glare, even the way she walks. She’s so good we can even see how the occasional smile coming out of her is as much a performance Mavis is putting on as anything. And her big scene on the lawn as she finally lays everything out is just extraordinary. She doesn’t care anymore how much anyone hates her and it’s clear Theron doesn’t as well, resulting in one of the strongest lead performances seen in the past several years. Patton Oswalt (“Take that, liver!”) is just amazing as well as someone who has stayed in this town, who can’t let go of the past and freely knows it. Playing Matt as no longer intimidated by Mavis the way he probably was in high school as he takes pride in that bourbon he’s concocted in his garage he doesn’t overdo his big scene, instead spitting it out because what he has to recount is so horrible there’s no need to make a big thing out of it. Oswalt deserved every bit of acclaim he got but he deserved more and hopefully he’ll get a chance to prove that in the coming years. Patrick Wilson brings a quiet genuineness to Buddy, a guy who doesn’t have much to say about his life beyond what he has for lunch but completely ok with that. In every gesture he makes it clear how much he’s gladly moved beyond whatever happened in his past and how comfortable he now is. Elizabeth Reaser brings a relaxed attitude to Beth, a ‘cool mom’ who it seems like spending some time with would actually be an enjoyable experience and she just nails those moments where she needs to stand out, particularly that moment of uninhibited joy while on the drums with her band. Jill Eikenberry and Mary Beth Hurt also make strong impressions as mothers with memories of a great many things never spoken of while Collette Wolfe in the small but crucial role as Matt’s sister nails her big scene near the end. Without what she does here things just wouldn’t be the same.
A defiant slap at anyone who insists that a film’s lead character needs to be even remotely likable, YOUNG ADULT gets to me deep down in a way that new films rarely do anymore. I suspect that many people who watch this film hate Mavis Gary but I don’t. I can’t hate Mavis Gary, as awful a person as she is. Maybe because I often feel stuck the way she does. But hey, I’m not drinking much Diet Coke these days, so maybe that’s something. I only wish Mavis well and even though she’s probably just going to go right back to her apartment I hope she realizes all the possibilities she now has in front of her, now that maybe she’s finally able to move on from the nineties and her past. And even more than the booze, I hope she gives up all that fast food and reality TV. It would really be for the best in the long run. But I know all too well that you should never try to make certain women do anything. Even if they do toss you a little glint of a smile every now and then.
I agree completely with your assessment of the tragic and brave defiance that Charlize gives to her performance, and the fact that yes, while the 90's are in our rearview mirror, and things today seem rather odorless, tasteless, and colorless, it is that ability to recognize in one's self, the limitations self-imposed habits we all have to muddle through from day to day.
Love the way you put a little bit of yourself into your reviews.
Have been a big fan for a couple of years.
Don't get discouraged.
I was semi-interested in this film, missed seeing it, then completely forgot about it. And now I have read a review that compels me to see it very soon. I always enjoy your writing -- but this essay resonates on a special frequency.
That's so nice of you to say and very happy to hear from someone who also responded to the film. I'll keep pushing forward. Thank you.
Glad to hear that someone else is going to see it! Many thanks for that, it means a great deal.
Great essay, glad I came across your blog. Being part of Generation X, I found a lot to relate to in this movie. We're a group obsessed with pop culture and themselves, and I've known a few people who defiantly try to cling to their past while the world changes around them. Not to the pathological levels Mavis does, though.
Much credit should go to Jason Reitman, whose work I've followed since Up In The Air. He's not afraid to avoid the Hollywood ending, giving his characters little to no arc and a more open end to their story. Reitman understands that people don't change much regardless of what happens to them.
Many thanks for your kind words. I couldn't agree with you more and a comment like this means the world to me.
It is a very special movie. My own connection is that they went to my hometown of Massapequa Park to film the bar Woodys, which is a serious dive of a bar on Park Blvd. Don't understand how that makes any economic sense, to go on location when they could have so easily recreated the interior on a set. But there Charlize was, on the town street where the Baldwins and Jerry Seinfeld once did tread.
Liked the film and I liked Theron's performance in it (she's one of my fave actresses anyway) but I thought the lead character was just a selfish, narcissistic b**** who thought the whole world revolved around her, and who didn't give a damn about anyone but herself. I mean, who else but a narcissist would go track down their ex thinking that they could just worm their way back into said ex's life, even though said ex is married? That's insane in itself. And,yes,people do change in their lives because they have to---that the usual part of growing up and growing older. To say people never change is one of the dumbest things I've ever heard----no one is the same at say, 35, as they were at 16.
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