Dir. Jason Reitman, USA, 2011, 94 mins
Review by Matthew Rodgers
Director Jason Reitman is carving out a niche in studies of those marginalised from accepted social conformity. Whether it is the social expectations, which forced George Clooney to hide in the skies during, Up in the Air, or the moral bankruptcy of Aaron Eckhart’s pro-smoking lobbyist from Thank you for Smoking, all of his protagonists skirt the periphery of the norm. It’s a theme that’s close to Oscar winning screenwriter Diablo Cody’s heart too. Her sass-speaking Juno was the epitome of someone going against the grain. Young Adult is the result of their combined talents: a smart, witty, watch-through-your-fingers, cathartically cruel examination of voluntary failure, which features an unforgiving performance from Theron.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a thirty-something ghost-writer who houses a Paris Hilton styleChihuahuain her handbag. Every day she wakes up face down, stinking drunk, in an unconscious effort to numb the fact that her “fame” is slowly evaporating, as her series of novels move from bookshop bargain pile to pulping machine.
Mavis receives a group email from her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), which announces the birth of his first child. She decides to recapture her former glory by returning to her home town to wreck his idyllic and, as she perceives it, pathetic life.
Your enjoyment of Young Adult depends largely on your reaction to Theron’s performance. It is unapologetic and at times horrible. Yes, she does amusing things that we’ve all contemplated doing, like spitting in dry ink cartridges (only me?), and reacting to the adoration piled on a newborn baby by exclaiming, “Have you seen it? Up close?” But she is also an unjustifiably selfish character, who is offered no redeeming characteristics or narrative arc. Your willingness to stick with her is based on misguided pity or a desire for redemption that probably won’t come. She is a troubled soul and Reitman and Cody are providing a window into her most vulnerable moments, and all kudos to them for not pandering to typical movie conventions. The problem still remains that it is very hard to like her.
Patton Oswalt does best in the supporting cast, possibly down to the fact that he is clearly the voice of the audience’s projections. He is happy to point out Mavis’s failings and criticise her vile behaviour. But his sardonic wit gets dispensed with too soon and his own narrative journey is never wrapped up. Their relationship is the only believable one in the movie, so it’s a shame that’s it’s resolved in the ridiculous, rather abrupt way that it is.
It is hard to know who this is aimed at. Those expecting the “alcoholic Clueless” that the poster/trailer suggests will be disappointed. This is dark drama peppered with flecks of wicked comedy and it leaves you with an odd lack of fulfilment, much like its central characters’ lives.