Young Adult will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 13th, which could be tomorrow, today, or yesterday, depending on when you’re reading this.
Over the past 50 years, the age at which a person is expected to engage in the “adult” responsibilities of career and family is being pushed back further. Marriage is being held off as adults out of high school pursue lengthy college careers or just take a lot of time to figure out who they are. Couples, if they do have children, are waiting longer, holding out for the “right time”. While there’s nothing intrinsically right or wrong about this phenomenon, it is skewing the essence of adult maturity. The lines between child/youth/adult are being blurred to almost excessive levels. Jason Reitman’s Young Adult takes this recent sea change as its subject and gets nasty about it.
Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a former high school beauty now in her early 30s. Mavis, recently divorced, earns her living as a ghostwriter for a young adult book series and her mentality rivals that of her queen bitch main character. Mavis hails from the town of Mercury, Minnesota, but now lives in Minneapolis, the center of the universe as far as she’s is concerned. When the movie opens, we can’t tell if she’s just in a funk or if she’s just perpetually prone to laziness and bad TV. Either way, she’s still living the life of a teenager but without any school to attend; she gets up when she wants, gains her nutritional sustenance from ice cream and Diet Coke (all the while maintaining a goddess-like figure), and she beds any attractive man that happens to come her way without any thought of what it might mean to said man. Mavis is living the dream, but she doesn’t seem exactly happy about it. Though she’s found financial success through her ghostwriting work, her world doesn’t feature even one significant friend.
“The Concept” is featured prominently in Young Adult, probably because it’s by a band called Teenage Fanclub. It doesn’t really fit the movie, but that doesn’t matter, because the song is really good!
Mavis’ mind lives in a constant state of petty adolescent conflict, a state kept alive through the writing of young adult fiction. When she discovers that her high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), has recently had a baby with his wife, Mavis is completely unable to feel happy for him; she sees the baby not as a part of a regular, healthy adult life, but rather as an alien figure – an “it” – to be removed as quickly as possible so that the equilibrium of past high school relationships can be brought back to normal levels. In a flash of insight that might well have come from one of her books, Mavis decides to go back to Mercury and reclaim her destiny by relieving Buddy of his “unhappy” marriage and claiming him for her own. The scheme is both devious and innocent at the same time; Mavis seems to understand that her mission is one of destruction, but she also seems to resolutely believe in the fantastic romantic ideals espoused in her YA books.
The central narrative conceit – that a high school slut / beauty queen, whose preoccupation with popularity would somehow earn her a living writing any type of literature – is a little far-fetched; not impossible, of course, but hard to swallow. It’s a fascinating idea for a character study, but it feels too on the nose at times, and perhaps too cruel. Mavis, replete in Hello Kitty t-shirt, is a pitiful sight; pretty and ugly at the same time.
I don’t usually ask for a movie to let me sympathize with or even like the characters up on the screen, but Mavis is so conniving and disturbingly pitiful that Young Adult grows into a tiresome, predictable character study quickly. We can see for miles exactly where the movie is going and it’s hard not to believe that Diablo Cody, the film’s screenwriter, is taking her revenge on all the mean girls she used to know. And Reitman, at Cody’s behest, spends the entire movie looking down on Mavis.
The central problem with Young Adult is in the believability of the main relationships depicted. Everyone that Mavis comes in contact with in Mercury seems to have matured well beyond adolescent preoccupations, and soon you begin to wonder why any of them would give her a moment of their time and attention; she, after all, has been rejecting them for years. If you’re Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), the crippled high school cast-out who spent his entire high school career with a locker right next to a completely oblivious Mavis Gary, why do you want to hang out with her now? Matt spends most of the movie trying to convince Mavis that getting back together with Buddy is a bad idea, but never tries to take advantage of her pitiful state. His character motivations remain rather mysterious; if you’re not trying to bed her and if you still have contempt for her, why not just let her fall on her own sword? If you’re the now happily married old boyfriend and you can tell that Mavis is a little depressed, more than a little inappropriate at times, and obviously willing to destroy your marriage, why invite her to hang out with you? What can Buddy possibly gain from interacting with her? And does he really believe that by merely being her friend, he can somehow bring Mavis out of her funk?
These questions and more plague the mind while watching Young Adult. They can take you right out of the movie and make you begin to wonder if this entire movie is nothing but an act of petty vindictiveness on the part of Cody and Reitman. Their obvious, more sanctimonious intentions were to explore and perhaps critique the immaturity in so many young adults today. The critique falls flat, though, because there’s nothing natural about Mavis in a dramatic sense and nothing funny enough in the film to justify seeing it as a healthy satire. Young Adult is the movie equivalent of the smart-ass hipster who still bears the scars of being uncool before college.
The most telling observation in Young Adult comes in the way that Mavis’ mindset seems to derive directly from the books that she writes. She is almost completely unable to separate the fictional fantasies in her books from a real, mature adult world. The Mavis character may take the idea to the extreme, but I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that many adults, both old and young, are unable to separate the reality of their own lives from the dramatic arcs they saturate themselves with in watching television and movies. It is a dangerous way to think about yourself and the world around you, and the subject deserves a better treatment than this.