Once upon a time, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) had everything. She was the most popular girl in her small-town high school, she had she was dating school heartthrob Buddy (Patrick Wilson), and she was “going places.” But when Young Adult picks up, we find that Mavis’ life didn’t quite turn out the way she wanted. Having lost Buddy sometime after high school, she is now a recent divorcee, a raging alcoholic, and the nearly uncredited writer of a soon-to-be-finishing teen fiction series. In short, her life is going nowhere and despite her outward protestations to the contrary, she seems to know it. After learning that Buddy has recently become a father, Mavis spontaneously packs her bags and heads back home to Mercury, Minnesota with an eye on breaking up Buddy’s seemingly happy marriage. As her plan unravels, however, she finds an unlikely friend in Matt (Patton Oswalt) and begins to question her life choices.
Young Adult represents the reunion of director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, both of whom burst onto the Hollywood scene with 2007’s Juno (a personal favorite of mine). You can see hints of Juno sprinkled through this collaboration, though its charm is decidedly different than the pair’s previous effort. Whereas Juno took a serious situation and brought a light, quirky interpretation to the table, Young Adult takes a less significant subject matter (that being everyday life) and runs it through a humorous but much darker wash. It’s an interesting mix that doesn’t always work but also never really flounders. In essence, Young Adult finds a center groove and it stays there throughout the runtime, coming together for a quality film that perhaps does not reach its potential. I could make the case that this is the worst of Reitman’s four films but that’s really more a testament to the strength of his other than it is a mark against this piece. Perhaps its greatest failure is that it lacks the inspiration of Juno or Up in the Air and becomes mostly just a well-told story.
The greatest difference between Young Adult and Juno is, of course, the protagonist. Mavis’ embittered, cold nature is the polar opposite of Juno’s upbeat, hipster mentality and yet she is no less likeable. (Okay, maybe a little less likeable. I’ve got quite a soft spot for good ol’ Juno.) Theron pulls no punches in creating an immature and somewhat dark character but she always displays a twinge of insecurity even in her most diabolical moments. She isn’t exactly a sympathetic figure but the lack of self-worth which shines through in every scene makes her human and allows the audience to stick with her throughout the film. You may not necessarily root for Mavis but you also don’t root against her. This is what makes Young Adult a worthwhile experience when compared to, say, Bad Teacher, another 2011 film that featured an unflinchingly miserable leading lady. I openly rooted against Cameron Diaz’s morally reprehensible teacher in that film while Mavis seems to have a chance at becoming a good person, even if she never really attains redemption, which creates a bit of appeal. It’s a great performance from Theron and it shows off the incredible range she truly has. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention how great Oswalt is in his role as a poor unfortunate soul who’s never gotten the attention he deserves. Not only is he hilarious but his almost poignant portrayal is what brings Mavis’ humanity to the surface. It’s an understated but nonetheless powerful role and Oswalt absolutely nails it while providing the perfect contrast for Theron to work off of.
In the end, Young Adult comes out as a good, perhaps even very good, dramedy that doesn’t quite have the aspirations that I might have expected. It is entertaining and well-acted but ultimately forgettable, the kind of film that you enjoy once through but don’t seek out again in the future.