Review: Young Adult

(Jason Reitman 2011, USA)

Collaborating for a second time after their pop-culture savvy indie darling Juno proved a winning formula, Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody have formulated a biting character study in Young Adult – subverting the norms of high school retrospectives by focusing on a character who barely learns the error of her conceited ways. Boasting another career highlight for Charlize Theron, the film portrays Mavis Gary, a divorced novelist of popular young adult fiction approaching middle age, who decides to return home and regain the affections of her high school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson), happily married with a newborn son. Whereas other films of a similar kind see the formerly popular realising their glory days within the school halls of their youths were entirely false, Young Adult challenges this by depicting a character so abandoned by the ideals she was once promised that her only avenue of contentment is ruining the lives of those who have embraced happiness in its simplest of forms. The film is scaborous and fascinating, building to a downbeat ending that, like Mavis, refuses to play by the rules.

Equally, the film is something of an indictment of small-town American life; compared to the vertiginous Minneapolis, to which Mavis ascended post-high school, her home town of Mercury, Minnesota, is depicted as autumnal and snug, peopled by characters living, to Mavis’s view and equal disgust, within the epitomes of mediocrity. Buddy, the colourless, quintessential jock-cum-everyman, is a staple of homespun existence, the town heartthrob who wants nothing more than to settle down with his equally unflashy wife. Consciously underwritten, there is little reason for Mavis’s undying infatuation with Buddy, and the relentless ploys she continues to execute in order to steal his uninterested attentions add to her eventual downfall, an alcohol-fuelled whirlpool of spite, vilifying everyone around her.

Seen through the eyes of their protagonist, Reitman and Cody seem to suggest that living in suburbia equates to a resigned existence, exemplified by Patton Oswalt’s physically and mentally damaged town stalwart, yet to the residents this is normality. The urbane lifestyle Mavis drags along with her are alien to such a rural setting, her fake blonde hair and expensive couture denied re-entry and met with disdain from the locals she once proudly mistreated, who label her a “psychotic prom queen bitch”. Like Mavis’s trichotillomania, the bald patch on her apparently perfect veneer, the film incessantly picks away at its damaged protagonist, until all that remains is a hollow shell amidst a shore of vicious resentment.

This denial of a character’s repressive past is similar to Reitman’s previous film Up in the Air, where a clinical style is undone when its composed protagonist embraces his dowdy past. Here, however, Reitman’s camera takes a precise focus on Mavis masking herself with make up to cover the remnants of the sozzled night before. Theron’s chiselled, glacial good looks are a perfect match for Mavis, calculating under a cleansed surface and serving to symbolize a film that initially appears to be one thing but, in actuality, is something altogether more jaggedly humorous and introspective.

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