Dir. Jason Reitman
(2011, R, 94 min)

The first time we see Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) in Young Adult, she’s lying face down in bed looking worse for wear. We’ll see her in a similar position several times during the film; we come to recognize it as the hangover following a bender. In another such scene, she wakes up under a man she has slept with after feigning interest in him during their date the previous night. She regrets the tryst if her morning-after sneer is any indication, and at that moment I imagined she’s a kind of woman who one night might go home with the character from Shame. They’re both dysfunctional, would have sex with each other for different reasons – but neither for the right ones – and neither would enjoy it. They’d part ways and wish they’d never met.

But I like this film better than Shame, which was vague and indistinct where this one is clever and perceptive. Written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, the duo behind Juno, it’s a human tragedy cleverly disguised as a comedy. Mavis was once a high school queen bee, and twenty years later she’s still a high school queen bee in every aspect but biological age. The problem is, most of her friends and family have moved on, gotten married, had kids, have become adults. Now the author of a concluding series of young-adult novels, Mavis is frozen in the mindset of her adolescent characters, and Theron’s performance is funny and sad in how well she achieves the speech, mannerisms, and emotional maturity of a teenage girl, her face stuck in a permanent “Eww gross!” sneer.

But half the film’s effect is in how others react to her, from the former high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) she’s trying to steal away from his wife, to the classmate she never noticed in high school (Patton Oswalt), and even her parents, with whom she has a seemingly nonchalant but actually quite revealing scene after she returns to her childhood home to execute her Gossip Girl-worthy scheme. In voice-over she writes her novel from the point of view of a spoiled girl not unlike herself, who would be happy if only the rest of the world would appreciate how wonderful she is. Truth is, she’s a lonely alcoholic, and everyone knows it but her.

 

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