Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’sfollow up to Juno is a refreshing black comedy which riffs on the dark side of misplaced nostalgia and former glories. Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gray, a 30-something former high school homecoming queen who is now the writer of a flagging series of young adult books.
Depressed and miserable following her divorce and with inspiration for her last book running dry, she returns to her small town to try to rekindle a relationship with her now happily married high-school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson) who has just had his first baby. But when she encounters more resistance than she anticipated, she forms an unexpected friendship with a disabled former classmate, Matt (Patton Oswalt), who hasn’t moved on since school either.
Diablo Cody excels at creating characters who feel completely genuine but while Juno was peppered with wise-cracking teen speak, Young Adult has dialogue which feels far more realistic. Cody has a particular gift for inflections and slang which evokes a particular time and Mavis’s speech seems jammed in the high-school period in which she was popular.
That’s appropriate as Mavis has never really grown up. She’s been reliving the past glory days of her youth repeatedly by writing stories which are rehashed memories of her own life – living vicariously in the past where she used to be a somebody and cribbing dialogue she overhears from modern teens.
Mavis is a narcissist, an alcoholic, selfish, vain and cruel and yet Cody’s script is such that our sympathies remain with her at all times even when she’s at her most appalling. It takes real skill to pull off a despicable protagonist but our reaction to her inevitably disastrous attempts to steal Buddy away from his wife is ultimately one of pathos rather than revulsion – the crowds gathered on the grass watching her final catastrophic public meltdown certainly feel more pity than scorn.
Charlize Theron is absolutely marvellous as Mavis, an expertly judged performance which is an inversion of the usual rom com heroine and one which was stunningly overlooked in this year’s Best Actress nominations. Theron won acclaim for playing ugly in Monster; here her transformation is less radical – her undeniable beauty still shines through but she looks tired, worn out – a perfect fit for a washed-up prom queen.
Comedian Patton Oswalt delivers a breakthrough performance as Matt. He’s exactly the kind of classmate Mavis would have picked on in school, something which they both recognise.
In a moment of recollection she realises he’s “that hate crime guy” – the guy that was left permanently crippled after a group of jocks who thought he was gay beat him senseless. Tellingly, when someone reminds her that she used to call him “theatre fag”, she doesn’t remember the details. Cody derives as much from what is implied and not said as to what is – the outlines of the past can be discerned from the shape of the present.
Young Adult is a hugely enjoyable and terrifically written film; funny, witty and at times devastatingly perceptive.