Young Adult (2011) ★★★★
Dir: Jason Reitman USA, 94mins
Cast: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser
On first impulse Jason Reitman’s second feature with Diablo Cody as screenwriter, the first being breakout Juno (2007), sounds like it will venture down a well-worn route that many formulaic romantic comedies have travelled before. Thankfully this is far from the case. Young Adult features Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), mid thirties, divorced but a successful ghost writer of a teen literature series. After another drunken one night stand Mavis receives an e-mail from Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), her ex high school sweetheart, announcing that he has become a father. Somehow buoyed by this information Mavis decides to leave Minneapolis and go back home to her hometown of Mercury, her sole intention to win Buddy back at all costs.
Reitman, son of Ghostbusters (1984) director Ivan, first announced himself with satire Thank You for Smoking (2005) where Aaron Eckhart plays a slick pro tobacco lobbyist (think echoes of corporate bully Chad from In the Company of Men (1997) but with some shred of ethics). Juno (2007) followed with a smart turn by Ellen Page as a teenager confronting an unexpected pregnancy and then Up in the Air (2009) where George Clooney plays a lonely corporate downsizer and collector of air miles, Reitman’s most mainstream effort thus far.
Young Adult takes a different tack, trading satire or smarts for acidity and a social ineptitude toe curling in its embarrassment to the viewer. As a collaboration with Cody this is superior to Juno,which although amusing and thoughtful with its predicament traded too much on its indie, hipster styling’s. This is closer in tone to the films of Alexander Payne, particularly About Schmidt (2002) which tends to get forgotten amongst Election (1999) and Sideways (2004). In his latter films Payne mines comedic value from his characters but also the pathos of their existence.
Mavis is one of those characters. She has never completely let go of her halcyon high school days when she was prom queen and held in adulation. Her book series is due to be cancelled as sales have plummeted and as each morning comes around we see her slumped on her bed still dressed from the night before nursing a hangover. Her mission represents a chance to obtain what she believes is rightfully hers. Despite the best efforts of guardian angel Matt (Patton Oswalt), bullied at high school and previously ignored by Mavis, who tries to convince her that this is never going to work she piles on headfirst, a little black number as her armour.
It is difficult to side with this character but Reitman and Theron excel at pealing back the layers to reveal someone who is damaged and lost. A short scene where Mavis visits her parents and goes to her bedroom, a high school time capsule, subtlety gets to the heart of the issue. When Mavis does finally blow, at the christening of Buddy’s child, it is entirely expected, cringe inducing but also painful to see her go through the process of airing her psychological baggage in public. It’s a brave performance from Theron that balances arrogance and tart one liners with an underlying lack of self-worth, unlike anything she has done before. Young Adult was largely ignored when released, probably due to its scabrous nature. It is by turns hilarious and surprisingly poignant in places although it is doubtful that this leopard will ever changes its spots. Highly recommended.