Arts and Culture

'Young Adult'

Charlize Theron's 'psychotic prom queen' vies for a high school flame in this highly immature flick.

By Steve Burgess 16 Dec 2011 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other week on The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

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Charlize Theron is Mavis Gary, young adult.

Imagine a movie about Darth Vader, but instead of the Death Star the big climax happens at a baby shower. Or a remake of Fatal Attraction where you are supposed to care about Glenn Close instead of just hoping she gets stabbed to death. Throw in a few uncomfortable laughs and that's Young Adult, the new collaboration by the team that brought you Juno, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody.

Acclaimed though it was, Juno was a love-it-or-hate-it deal, with its high school hipster vibe and cute dialogue. Young Adult is a post-high school tale in which all the high school cliques and divisions live on, still defining the damaged souls who staggered away from grad. Not that Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) should be damaged -- back in the fictional town of Mercury, Minnesota, she was the queen of her domain. Now she slouches around Minneapolis, writing (or avoiding writing) a young adult book series. Booze, fast food, casual sex, waking up in your clothes and dodging your boss's angry requests for some work -- Mavis Gary is Vince Vaughn or Adam Sandler in a Charlize Theron suit.

Then she gets a birth announcement. Her old high school beau Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) is a new daddy. Untangling herself from her latest one-night stand, she packs a bag and heads back to Mercury. Mission: steal Buddy away from his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) and baby.

But, you are helpfully pointing out right now, that's insane. Yup. Mavis is a nutcase, a "psychotic prom queen" as one former classmate calls her. Utterly solipsistic, she is certain Buddy must long for her as she does for him. On her first night in Mercury she bumps into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a former high school loser/nerd left seriously disabled after a gay bashing (no, he isn't). Pudgy Matt will play Sancho Panza to Mavis's statuesque Don Quixote. Let the tilting begin!

What could've been

Young Adult's best moments come from Theron. Her Mavis is so haughty and clueless that she can be genuinely amusing (when someone suggests the baby is cute, an incredulous Mavis asks, "Have you looked at it closely?") Loopy as its central character is, Young Adult ought to be like a slasher movie without the cutlery, an over-the-top comedy about what happens when a small-town Marie Antoinette is frustrated in her ambitions.

But Young Adult doesn't quite go there. Instead, having written a protagonist who's a loathsome cartoon, Cody triumphantly humiliates her, literally stripping Mavis naked as she realizes her folly. It's the kind of thing that usually happens in films with more complicated people and relationships, rather than movies that otherwise resemble Godzilla's vacation videos.

Not much is believable here. The idea that anyone as spectacularly unreflective as Mavis could be a writer is an insult to the profession and in particular to the young adult category, in which Mavis supposedly toils. Cody seems to be suggesting that any narcissistic head case can crank out that stuff. And although Theron is great at playing the self-centred beauty, Cody also makes her a drunk and a fast-food junkie. People who look like Charlize Theron are perfectly free to cram that crud down their gullets every day, but they won't continue to look like Charlize Theron 10 years after high school.

There's plenty of Cody contempt to spread around. As much as she hates Mavis, she also seems to hate the people Mavis hates. As for Buddy, he's decent but dull, and so unaware of what everyone else can see going on that he starts to seem like Mavis's soulmate after all. Toward the end, Matt's sister Sandra (Colette Wolfe) tells Mavis: "Everyone in this town is fat and stupid."

Mavis believes it. Does Diablo Cody?  [Tyee]

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