Young Adult, the fourth film from Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air), is also the re-teaming of Reitman with Diablo Cody (Jennifer's Body, The Evil Dead) after their successful pairing on Juno. Long time readers of the Blogorium are probably aware that I don't like Juno. In fact, I hate Juno, find the movie to be obnoxious. Fortunately, Young Adult is not Juno. It's not anything like Juno, or anything about Juno that I found grating. What's funny is that I think you're supposed to dislike Mavis Gary and to pull for Juno MacGuff, but to be honest, I sort of feel the other way. It's tied to parts of Young Adult hitting home for the Cap'n, and I'll get to that in a bit.
Mavis (Charlize Theron) is a semi-successful ghost writer for the Waverly Prep young adult novels. She's divorced, lives in a disheveled apartment with her dog and sleepwalks through one night stands in the aftermath of her divorce. The Waverly Prep series is coming to an end and her publisher needs Mavis to finish the last book, but she's more interested in a birth announcement from her high school sweetheart. Mavis decides to drive from Minneapolis to her hometown of Mercury to split up his marriage and live happily ever after.
Young Adult's "voice of reason," Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), immediately and continually calls out Mavis as a horrible person. They nevertheless become kindred spirits, both emotionally stunted from high school (Mavis emotionally and Matt quite literally rendered to walking with a crutch after being attacked by homophobic jocks), and she's willing to overlook his frankenstein-ed super hero action figures because he also makes homemade bourbon. Matt overlooks Mavis' selfish ploy to woo a married man away from his newborn child because she hates everything about Mercury that he hates. High school opposites come together out of mutual disdain for small town Minnesota.
In a normal romantic comedy I suppose that Mavis and Buddy would realize something important about each other and then Beth would do something horrible and they'd run off together to Minneapolis. Appropriately, this is exactly how Mavis imagines things should happen, so we should expect the opposite - Mavis fails spectacularly and learns a lesson about the downward spiral her life is taking, and then leaves to start life anew (or stays and ends up with Matt, maybe). But Cody and Reitman choose to do something a little trickier, something that apparently does not endear audiences to Young Adult in the way that Juno or Up in the Air do.
Mavis does fail spectacularly, and as her delusional state crumbles, she heads over to Matt's, and they do in fact sleep together, but it's more as a last act of desperation for acceptance before she leaves. In fact, Mavis seems to be on the path of self awareness the next morning, when Matt's sister Sandra (Collette Wolfe) offers her some coffee. Sandra was one of the many Mercury High School students in awe of Mavis, and she mistakes a moment of clarity in her hero's mind for weakness. At the exact moment audiences expect Young Adult to go one way, Sandra Freehauf nudges it the other, by insisting to Mavis that she's better than everybody in Mercury, that she's better because she left, and that nothing that happened when she came back should even matter. And Mavis believes her, leaving Mercury once and for all convinced her delusions were justified and that Buddy is at fault that it failed. Sandra, trying to help Mavis feel better, has her idol drinking the "Mavis is Better Than Us" Kool Aid in no time.
There's a little more going on beyond the reductive ending I mentioned, including emotional trauma on Mavis' part that cut as deep as Matt's physically abused body, and while it doesn't justify what she does, it hints at a firmer foundation of her illusory vision of "true love" gone wrong. Young Adult does, in some ways, feel anti-climactic because the main character doesn't learn anything despite the best efforts of almost everyone, but it's more appropriate considering how easy it seems for Hollywood narratives to turn a life around in ninety minutes. Beyond Reitman and Cody, Charlize Theron is fearless as the anti-social, condescending, and emotionally manipulative Mavis. She drinks herself into oblivion, abuses anyone who gets near her, and vicariously lives through her Waverly Prep characters (delivered in narration throughout the film). So I get that people wouldn't be happy that Mavis "wins" in the end.
Strangely, I didn't dislike Mavis the way I think you're supposed to. It seems clear that Matt is probably the audience surrogate (and Oswalt does a spectacular job as the guarded geek man-child) and while it's an inevitable course, we hope that Freehauf and Mavis don't have sex because he succumbs to her magnetic (if toxic) personality. To be fair, I understand the Matt Freehauf character, but the reason I don't hate Mavis is because some of how she sees herself reminds me of where I'm at. Let's take a brief look, with as little navel-gazing as humanly possible.
While I don't feel, like Mavis does, that I "peaked" in high school and everything went downhill after that, I totally relate to her feeling of not being where she wants to be in life. The characters are roughly the same age (probably two or three years older tops) to where I am, and the Cap'n definitely isn't pleased with where I find myself. Thankfully (I guess), most of the people I went to high school with don't idolize me, so there's no risk of delusions of grandeur beyond "internet movie blogger," but I can relate a little bit. When I look back at old yearbooks, it's clear that people expected big things from the Cap'n, things that didn't materialize. As a result, I'm more comfortable with most high school peers not knowing where I am or what I'm doing. Like Mavis, I prefer an illusion to the reality, even if our reasons are different.
Anyway, so Young Adult worked for me, even with the "unsatisfying" ending. Nobody gets off the hook, and Mavis Gary and Matt Freehauf will in all likelihood go back to their lives of desperate solitude. Not a happy ending, but a believable one. Reitman's direction is assured and improving with every subsequent film. My concerns that Young Adult might be like Juno because of the presence of Cody were ill-founded - other than a nickname for the combination Pizza Hut / Taco Bell / KFC's, there isn't much of the "clever" dialogue that had me gritting my teeth last time around. The Young Adult screenplay feels more reflective, more self-deprecating, but that may just be me projecting the character of Mavis onto the screenwriter. That may not be fair, but whatever the reason, Young Adult feels more rounded as a film than Juno. I can't say you'll like how it ends - you might even feel cheated - but the film is worth investing in on the off chance you don't. I wouldn't be surprised if more people in their thirties related to Mavis Gary than they'd think.