Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) peaked early. At her rural Minnesota high school she was the prom queen and Superior Blond Being, and clever enough to think she might become a famous writer. All the girls wanted to be her; all the boys wanted to bed her. Back then, Mavis ran with that other species of teen royalty, the jocks, and had eyes only for stud athlete Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). Her celebrity myopia made a blur of the drones, like pudgy Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). Is high school a democracy? Is a monarch expected to notice every one of her subjects? Mavis had to keep her eye on the prize: transporting her small-town luster to that most magical of all big cities, Minneapolis, and wowing important grownups who, in their high school days, might have been almost as beautiful as she.
Now it’s nearly 20 years later, and Mavis, frustrated and angered by her life after high school, is piquing late. Her marriage to some big-city boy ended in failure — though, as her mother reminds her, “The wedding wasn’t a failure. Remember that tiramisu?” Her dreams of literary success have curdled into a job ghostwriting the Waverly Prep series of young-adult romances, whose self-absorbed heroine, Kimberly Sutherland, might be Mavis in her long-ago glory days. (“Sometimes, in order to heal,” she writes in Kimberly’s voice, “a few people have to get hurt.”) She squats in her messy apartment watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians. How in the world did they achieve the fame that should have been hers? Mavis figures there’s just one way to prove she’s still the queen: by going home and winning back Buddy. And if you tell her that’s a long shot, because he got married and stayed that way, Mavis would say, “Your point?”
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By turns amusing and annoying, Young Adult could be the flip side, plus the sequel, of Juno, another film written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman. You’ll recall that the pregnant teen played by Ellen Page was mature beyond her years. But at 37, Mavis is still a young adult: stunted, selfish, believing her glamorous past is somehow her destiny. To grow up, she will need a few face-slaps to her pride, and perhaps a realignment of her ideas about the sort of man she should be with.
So maybe Matt, the drone, is Juno. Mavis doesn’t recall him; he reminds her, “My locker was actually next to yours, all four years.” Finally she recognizes him as “the hate-crime guy”: Matt had been beaten and crippled by jocks, exercising a more virulent version of the blithe bigotry Mavis showed him. “They mangled my c—,” he tells her, “so I have to piss and come sideways for the rest of my life” — a line that instantly jolts Young Adult out of Romy and Michele comedy-nostalgia land and into the psychic-horror terrain of Jennifer’s Body, another high school movie written by Cody. Except that, in Young Adult, the victim survives to haunt his pretty predator, and perhaps to convince her that he’s worth caring for.
Reitman, who also directed Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air, is aces at finding quirky humanity in the smallest of roles. When Mavis registers at her town’s Hampton Inn, she collides with a desk clerk, played by Louisa Krause with a creaky-door voice and a naturally xenophobic suspicion of anyone as good-looking as this. Krause steals the scene, in part because she expresses a view that moviegoers may share: Mavis, instead of looking puffy and lined, as people do when they’re a couple of decades past their teen prime, remains criminally gorgeous — i.e., Theron. She would attract attention on Oscar’s red carpet (where Theron may well be next Feb. 24), let alone in a small-town sports bar, where Mavis shows up at 6 p.m. encased in a low-cut vamp dress and a sarcophagus of makeup. She is a knockout; she is Mavis in her undiluted, miraculously sustained teen radiance.
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She is here to rekindle the flame with Buddy, played by Wilson as if Kevin Costner were a brand of sportswear that he bought off-rack. Mavis is sure that Buddy will once again be hers, despite Matt’s skepticism. “Love conquers all. Have you not seen The Graduate?” she asks Matt (forgetting that at the end of that romantic comedy, the reunited lovers stare blankly into the not-so-hot future). But Buddy hasn’t bothered to shave for this “date.” His lack of interest in an affair or an elopement is clear to everyone in the movie and the audience but somehow eludes Mavis. Back in the town she left so long ago, she must imagine that nothing has changed and that no one, including Buddy, can resist her spell. Yet the only person still mesmerized by the Mavis legend is Mavis. Buddy has grown up. When she tells him, “There are so many things we have to say to each other,” he sensibly replies, “Well, let’s not say all of them.”
So small and modest that it threatens to vanish while you watch it, the movie has trouble deciding if Mavis is a heroine or a harridan, and if she’s at fault for living in the past or the townsfolk are wrong for resenting her attempts to dwell in remembered glory. So Cody gives Mavis both a big tell-off scene and a comeuppance. Toward the end, Matt’s sister notices Mavis’ soiled appearance and asks, “What’s wrong with your dress?” Mavis, belatedly seeing the light, replies, “I spilled my life on it.”
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Whether Mavis is Cody’s vision of her teen self or a portrait of the bitch-goddesses she knew way back when, Young Adult packs some ornery truths about compromise as the key to an arrested adolescent’s survival as an adult. In a thorny role, Theron is splendid; she instinctively reveals everything Mavis doesn’t know about herself and offers an intimate peek into a wayward soul.
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