The manchild is such a component of the popular culture that he’s something of a cliche; we’re actually no longer instantly charmed by the 35 year old with an extensive collection of toys. But what about his female counterpart? In most manchild movies women are either the enemy - the force that is trying to make the manchild grow up - or the goal - the reason why the manchild must put away childish things. In either case women are always presented as grown up, matured and adult.
Young Adult is one of the few (only?) films to turn its attention on the womanchild, the grown-ass woman in a state of arrested development. Where the films of Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow largely celebrated the idea of men who refuse to grow up, Young Adult often has very little kindness to spare for Mavis Gary. She is a woman so trapped in high school that she has made a career of ghost writing the Waverly Prep books, a young adult series set in high school featuring characters suspiciously like her and her friends.
Our introduction to Mavis is not entirely meant to endear her to us; she is slovenly and self-centered and not particularly emotionally alert (a date tells her how he spent a year in Thailand teaching and her first response is ‘Oh, that’s so terrible’). Her puffy little white dog is moved from one confined space to another.
Our introduction to Mavis serves another purpose: screenwriter Diablo Cody is throwing down the gauntlet. Often unfairly maligned for her highly stylized dialogue (the sort of stuff for which Joss Whedon gets fawned over), Cody has opted to make the opening of the film largely dialogue-free, telling the story of Mavis’ current life as a writer in Minneapolis mostly through visuals. The entire film feels, in many ways, like a reaction to all of the criticisms the hugely talented writer has received; normally I would despair at seeing someone take their critics so to heart, but it seems to have brought out something muscular and fierce in Cody.
Charlize Theron lays it all on the line as Mavis, often appearing without make-up (or at least the movie version of without make-up - but it’s close enough in this case). She embraces the deluded, selfish center of Mavis, always making it real. Theron doesn’t bend over backwards for our understanding, and she doesn’t give us much to work with, but over the course of the movie it’s impossible NOT to feel bad for poor, fucked up Mavis. That’s the kind of performance ‘movie stars’ rarely give anymore, but it’s the kind of a performance I think only a ‘movie star’ CAN give. You have to want to stick with Mavis from the beginning, despite her coming across as a less than noble person (her reaction to her high school boyfriend having a baby with his wife is go back to her home town and try to win him back), and movie star charisma will do that. But most movie stars will demand a major transformation, a total change of heart. Mavis has no such transformation, which is part of what makes her character so great.
Jason Reitman directs, bringing his bland, post-Sundance style to the film, but he does finally cement for me what his real strength as a director is: he doesn’t get in the way of the writer. Young Adult is completely and totally, front to back, a Diablo Cody movie. The film is hugely personal (Cody writes films about adolescents and is working on a Sweet Valley High film, like Mavis Cody comes from a small town and works under a pen name. Cody started her infamous stripper career in Minneapolis), and Reitman serves simply as a conduit to get Cody’s words on screen. He steps aside and lets her story tell itself.
(To be fair to Reitman there are a couple of nice directorial touches; every time Mavis puts on her makeup and gets ready to go out it’s cut together like action movie (or Edgar Wright) tooling up scenes. That may be in the script - I’d actually lay money on it - but it’s pulled off very well on film.)
He also gives his actors plenty of room. Patrick Wilson appears again as a slightly emasculated American male, but this time there’s the sense that it’s all okay. Interestingly his character Buddy and his wife, played by Twilight mom Elizabeth Reaser, present another side of arrested development. Like Mavis and Patton Oswalt’s Matt, they’re sort of stuck in the 90s - the wife is even the drummer in a 90s cover band. But they’ve been able to take their attachment to the decade of their youth and integrate it into their new life, which includes a baby.
Oswalt is the film’s other magnificent performer. He’s a classic manchild, but instead of having his wounds from high school be psychic, they’re all literal. Beatn almost to death and crippled by a group of jocks, Matt’s legs are crooked and his dick barely works. He compensates by making high quality moonshine (batches are given Star Wars names) and mixing and matching superhero action figures to create new characters. Patton rarely plays up the deep sadness inside of Matt, just letting it lay directly under the surface. The most interesting thing about the character is that he’s just bitter enough; he’s not one of those Kevin Smith angry nerds, but he’s not a happy cripple (in fact he hates them).
Matt’s an intriguing foil for Mavis. He’s the voice of reason as she attempts to seduce Buddy, and he ends up falling into the high school role of asexual sidekick. But while Cody presents Mavis in pretty stark terms, she’s very kind to Matt. He’s pathetic, but in a lovable way. And the film seems to forgive him his mental arrest, almost as if he has no other choice (underlined by making the happy, mountain climbing cripple character utterly irritating). Mavis, meanwhile, complains about how horrible she had it at home - but we see that her parents are fairly normal people.
Young Adult is wickedly funny, the kind of semi-dark comedy that really gets right up to the line of mean-spiritedness. In the end, though, the joke is on Mavis - while she’s disgusted by the KenTacoHut (KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut in one), she keeps eating there. She has contempt for the poor bastards who stayed in her home town, but they’re all so much happier than she is. And who is she anyway? A ghost writer for a failing teen series, and one who lives in the not-so-major metropolis of Minneapolis, at that.
This is a major film for Diablo Cody. Like the best personal movies there’s a sense of universality to it all; my theorem states that the more specific a movie gets the more universal it becomes. Cody manages to keep the film just this side of being ugly; it’s funny and often sad and a little bit scathing, but you don’t feel dirtied coming out of it. It’s a film you’re happy to revisit, not that kind of one and done feel bad movie. For some this might feel like Cody is hedging her bets, but I think it’s just a matter of the writer having some sympathy for a fucked up character who likely reflects her own least favorite personal qualities. I love movies like this, and I love this movie.