Still, I’m reminded of that young girl I created when I think about Mavis Gary, the woman Charlize Theron plays in Young Adult, the second collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody. Young Adult isn't about the same kind of tragedy, but, like my own story, it is about how the past can become a prison and how one's frustration with the way life has unfolded can blind us to emotional problems, leading us to act impulsively, even irrationally.
In Young Adult, Mavis, who ghostwrites a failing teen book series for a living, returns to the small Minnesota town where she grew up. She’s ostensibly come back for a real estate deal, but really she’s come to reclaim her old beaux, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who is both married and a new father.
The only person in town who’s wise to what she’s doing is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). Matt was not only in love with Mavis when they were in high school but was also the victim of a vicious hate-crime that left him with a shattered leg.
The two are kindred spirits now, if they weren’t before, united by their common brokenness. What sets them apart, though, is that Matt is keenly aware of his problems. Mavis, on the other hand, either can’t or won’t acknowledge what is so plainly obvious to others and to the audience—she needs serious help.
It’s a credit to Reitman and Cody that Mavis is likeable at all. She can be mean and cruelly flippant when it suits her, but mostly she’s just cold and unfeeling. She has a dim view of marriage and an even dimmer view of children. In her mind, she’s not stealing Buddy away—she’s rescuing him. Her life, too, is a parade of bottles. First thing every morning she’s sucking down Diet Coke like an infant draining a bottle of milk. By mid-afternoon she’s dulling her senses with shot after shot of liquor.
As prickly as she is, though, it’s hard not to feel something special for Mavis, or rather, the person Mavis could be if she could put her life together. She reminded me of girls I knew in high school and to some extent in college. Girls who are looking at the pieces of their lives and trying to fit the ends together, however inelegantly.
Likewise, in Young Adult Reitman and Cody prove how keen their eye for detail and sense of place is. As Mavis drives into her hometown, she can’t miss the glistening new Chili’s, the immaculate Staples, and other big retail businesses that have sprung up along the outskirts. She regards them with disdain, as if they belong there even less than she does. Afterwards, I couldn’t escape the sense that I’ve been in towns like this, where “growth” goes hand-in-hand with a shiny new big box store. But is this really growth or just a sign of local stagnation?
Ultimately, what I love about Young Adult—and yes, I would use the word love in connection with Young Adult—is its lean, mean focus on cracking through Mavis’ brittle surface, stripping her of her delusions until she can see herself as she is. That the film backtracks in its penultimate scene, with Matt’s sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe), assuring Mavis that she doesn’t need to change and that she really is too big of a fish for small-town Minnesota, is a bold move and threatens to capsize everything meaningful about Mavis’ internal journey. But even bolder is the film’s final, quietly devastating shot, which throws her entire future into question.
I have my own view about what happens after the picture cuts to black, but I suspect others will have wholly different opinions. The beauty, of course, is that neither yours nor mine can be proven. And that means that, regardless of how bleak things look at the end, it’s just as likely that Mavis’ best days are still in front of her.