Skip to main content

Young Adult

"Low hanging fruit," complains Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) to visiting home town girl - or visiting "psychotic prom queen bitch," depending on your point of view - Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), as the two go about their sparring, if not unlikely friendship in Young Adult, the second collaboration of director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody.   This after their wildly successful Juno in 2007.

Mavis, going through something of a pre-midlife crisis, has returned to her old stomping grounds of Mercury, Minnesota to reclaim former boyfriend Buddy Slade.  Never mind that Buddy is by all accounts a happily married man, or that his first child has recently appeared on the scene.  In fact, it's the arrival of her old flame's baby, whose picture Mavis retrieves from her e-mail in box one day during a bout of writerly procrastination that ultimately inspires Mavis to jump in her Mini Cooper and speed out of Minneapolis in favor of her hometown, a place Mavis regards with the same level of warmth she reserves for most everything and everyone in her curdled existence.    

I happened to see Young Adult recently at a surprise screening at the Music Box Theater in Chicago.   This apparently part of a series of "pop-up" screenings for Young Adult, eschewing the normal fall festival circuit.    Co-star Patton Oswalt took the stage, and after a bit of well-received imprompteau standup to the enthusiastic Saturday night crowd, introduced director Jason Reitman.  Reitman, in turn, asked for a warm welcome for local girl made good, "Diablo Motherfuckin' Cody."  Oh yes, I'm afraid, he did.  Mr. Reitman then proceeded to say that he was sorry if anyone had come expecting Juno, because the film we were about to see was not it.  

Actually, if marginally successful young adult writer Mavis Gary is not fellow Minnesotan Juno MacGuff about 15 years on, embittered by the experience of trying to make her way beyond the hermetically precious world set out in Juno to an inevitably disappointing existence beyond, she could certainly be her soul sister.   Or perhaps her wicked if amusing aunt.  Mavis definitely shares Juno's taste for soda in large quantity.  During Young Adult's first scene and once later in the film, we see Mavis lustily sucking face with a two liter of the diet variety.  There is also the same snarky wit, the one thing that Ms. Cody seems to execute with unqualified success.

But, the trouble with traveling, as Emerson said, is that you take yourself with you.  Mavis can speed away from the big city as fast as she will in her Mini Cooper, lip syncing to Teenage Fanclub's "The Concept" over and over, but once she arrives at her Mercury, Minnesota hotel, she's faced with the same old Mavis, however pretty and model thin she might still be.  The same can be said for her creator.  Ms. Cody has moved from the colorfully rendered world of Juno to the seemingly darker territory of Mavis' life crisis, but neither of these films have a great deal to do with the reality outside the movie house.


Amidst the kitsch of Tic-Tac's and its protagonist's hamburger telephone, Juno passed teen pregnancy off as something about as serious as a pesky case of acne.  That film succeeded to the degree it did largely on the strength of Ellen Page's ability to express the Juno's snark as well as her wide-eyed humanity.  She also had Ms. Cody feeding her some pretty sharp dialog while surrounded by a strong and likable cast.  It was something of a dreamworld with an indie rock soundtrack, but not without its moments of intelligent fun.  

Beyond its ironic title, Young Adult means to take us into a harsher, more adult world.  But neither Mavis' warped quest, nor the location where it plays out have much more to do with reality than Juno.  For what it's worth, the main characters' hoodies have changed colors like a 70's mood ring, from Green (Juno) to beige and sometimes black (Mavis).

Young Adult will probably be viewed by many as a kind of unflinching character study with moments of black humor.  The latter might be true, but neither the character nor her actions make enough sense to be really taken seriously.  There are plenty of edges to Mavis, sharp as Ms. Theron's cheekbones, but little else. And while a fair amount of traffic on Google or Facebook at any moment is probably devoted to people driven by loneliness, boredom or morbid curiosity, checking up on an old flame, even the most desperate are not going to drop what they're doing and head back to the home town to wrest the former boyfriend or girlfriend from their spouse and recently born infant.

A real character study of Mavis would probably stay in "The Mineapple," as a couple of Mercury residents still refer to the state's metropolis, much to the eye-rolling derision of Mavis.  The well observed first few scenes offer a limited promise in that regard.  We see Mavis asleep in her Hello Kitty sweatshirt while a reality show blares obliviously on a nearby television.  Once awake, she shuffles into the kitchen and takes a  few robust gulps of diet soda straight from the bottle.  Looking very much the victim of a hangover, Mavis stands in her kitchen, the previous night's makeup fading toward the macabre.  She remembers something and reaches under her sweatshirt to remove falsies, which involves a slightly painful peel, the objects having become a little too attached to her breasts over night.  Later, as she tries to print the picture of Buddy's baby, she realizes her one of her toner cartridges is empty, we see our dainty heroine dribble a stream of saliva into the cartridge to get the job done.  None of this to be confused with 21st-century  anthropology, but there's an amusing candor to these details, which seems a good case of the Ms.Cody writing what she knows.            

Alas, we don't stick around in the Twin Cities, but get to ride shotgun on Mavis' road to nowhere, or at least Mercury, to Ms. Gary pretty much one in the same.  This ill-advised mission - and Mavis might as well be swirling above Mercury, skywriting  SURRENDER BUDDY with a broomstick - is really the stuff of farce or black comedy.  And that is not necessarily a bad idea.  Skewering our culturally sacred institutions of marriage and parenthood would be as bold as it is rich with possibility.

There are moments when Young Adult wiggles its toes in that generally off-limits pool.  After Mavis and Matt's first meeting upon her return to Mercury, during which many rounds from the bar are downed before they go their separate, if unsteady ways, Mavis reveals her master plan to Matt.  When he tries to dampen her enthusiasm by mentioning that "I'm pretty sure that he's married with a kid on the way," Mavis responds.  "It's here.  I'm cool with it.  I mean, I've got baggage too."  The statement is bookended by Mavis' final appeal to Buddy, "We can go to the city like we always planned."  "Mavis, I'm a married man."  "I know.  We can beat this thing together."  

Oh, for the courage or ability to really jump into that pool.  Unfortunately, Cody and Reitman seem to lack both.  That's a shame, because in Charlize Theron, the writer and director have the actress to pull it off.  Of the nominations or awards that might come the way of Young Adult this upcoming Oscar season, Ms. Theron actually deserves consideration, playing a monster of a more everyday sort.  The fleeting expression on Mavis' face when regarding Buddy's child at his front door, the slightest movement of nose and squinting of eyes, still  manages to scream disdain.


Mavis seems all too ready to launch an assault on overly-precious notions of babies and parenthood.  Perhaps she would like to steal Buddy away and have children with him, but Cody's sketchy characterization makes any such speculation difficult.  In the midst of her climactic meltdown on the Slade's front lawn, seemingly the entire town, including her parents in attendance, as if at an intervention, Mavis does state that she once carried Buddy's child only to miscarry.  But at that moment, she's freely appropriating not only Matt's words (just as most the writing we see her do consists of overheard bits of conversation from teenagers in fast food restaurants woven with threads from her Buddy delusion) but his problems below the waist.  Mavis seems much more the type to consume than nurture her young at the first sign of difficulty.  During a reluctant, pre-meltdown visit to her childhood home, Mavis' mother (Jill Eikenberry) tries to dissuade her daughter from pursuing Buddy.  "That baby of his is just charming,"  she says, the implication obvious.  "Have you seen it?  Up close?" Mavis responds.  

As for the location of these shenanigans, as Juno might say, Mercury, Minnesota is essentially Anyblandhometown, USA.  Mavis drives down the main drag one of her first evenings, looking out on the endless string of franchise bars and restaurants with disappointed scorn, as if she (and Ms. Cody by extension) is the first person to note and find displeasure with the trend.  She went back to Mercury, Minnesota, and her city was gone.  There is a fleeting, promising glimpse of a  hybrid Pizza/Taco Bell/KFC, prompting me to hope that Das Racist's "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" might break into the soundtrack.   But that would have been rather obvious, I suppose.  And not in keeping with Mavis' decidedly retro inclinations in Young Adult.


Mavis finds some music presumably more to her taste when she enters The Village Saloon her first evening in town.  It seems as close to a dive still left in Mercury.  As she walks in, The Replacements' "Achin' To Be" plays on the bar's juke box.  While this is a welcome nod to Minnesota's greatest musical sons, it seems unlikely, Paul Westerberg's voice emanating from the speakers in one of the state's old man bars.  Even less likely in such a venue that the next song would be The Lemonheads "It's a Shame About Ray," as is the case in Young Adult.  "Remember the 90's?!" Mavis later exclaims to Buddy.  The bar operates in the same reality as that magical Mini Cooper, which repeatedly plays Teenage Fanclub not on an iPod or even CD player, but via a mix tape.  Go to the Mini site, build your own car, try to make one with a cassette player and let me know how that works for you.  

The initial boozy high school reunion between Mavis and Matt takes place after she claims a stool at the bar in The Village Saloon.  Matt reminds her that the two had adjoining lockers back in the day.  The egocentric  Mavis remembers neither that fact nor even the existence of Matt while reluctantly drawn into conversation.  Finally, the right association clicks into place, "You're the hate crime guy," she says, with some hint of a smile, finally placing the hobbled Matt in the human race.  The hate crime was a high school beating of Matt by rampaging jocks who mistook him for gay, leaving him somewhat mangled both of left leg and penis.


The central relationship of Young Adult turns out to not Mavis and Buddy, but Mavis and Matt, the former antipodean high school figures.  Matt operates not only as the kindly if sarcastic conscience to Mavis, but as the story's safety valve, lest the hell-bent Mavis take us somewhere truly dangerous.  As Matt, Patton Oswalt fares well enough bringing life to what could easily be more plot device than character.  The exchanges between Mavis and Matt do have their moments, as when he responds to hearing her plan to win back Buddy, "I would keep all of this to yourself.  I would...I would find a therapist," he counsels, eliciting a rare laugh from Mavis.  Otherwise, Oswalt is made to deliver tension clearing set-up lines like, "I'm a fat geek.  I know what a zombie is."

 Implausible as is the entire story line, Mavis' quest is taken to a kind of logical, mortifying extreme, the aforementioned meltdown in front of the Slade's home.  But Young Adult has yet a couple of more strange turns to take.  Mavis goes, full of self-loathing and remorse, to the only place left in Mercury where she has an audience.  There is consummation between she and Matt, the popular girl and the geek from high school hooking up at last.  The is probably meant to be a bold and humane move, but really just amounts to more awkward implausibility.  At least the scene ends realistically, with Mavis - repeating a move we saw her make with another unwanted partner - extricating herself from beneath Matt's flabby arm and slinking away.

Mavis slinks only as far as the kitchen, where Young Adult's strangest and least believable conversation takes place.  Matt's sister, Sandra (Collette Wolf), who like Matt, gazed on Mavis from afar in high school to little notice, offers an unexpected pep talk.  She convinces Mavis that her remorse, her unusual slide back toward humanity, is all wrong.  Everyone in Mercury is ugly and stupid.  Mavis is still beautiful and great.   And won't she take her back to "The Minneapple" with her?   While one might revert to old roles in the presence of acquaintances from high school (or just family, for that matter), neither Sandra nor this scene have more than a tenuous connection to reality.  It's not real, it's not particularly funny.  Like much of Young Adult there is just a strange, unsatisfying grasping after tone.

Nonetheless, Mavis is given a reprieve on despair and returns to a comfortably scornful state of mind until she checks out of the hotel and sees her banged-up Mini, the victim of a long night's drinking and indifferent job of parking.  All of this brings to mind Mr. Reitman's Up in the Air (2009).  Up in the Air seemed such a work of its time.  So much about the film was right in execution but lacking it its would-be profundity.  Highlighting the pain afflicting many in the country then, as now, the film showed considerable sympathy for the newly-unemployed while telling the story of Ryan Bingham, a man resolutely unattached, who nonetheless tried to perform his role as a "corporate downsizer" with professionalism.  As with Young Adult, Up in the Air is like two separate films, neither eliciting a commitment from writer or director.  There's a strong whiff of exploitation to Reitman's decision to utilize real people a second time in the film, as they explain how their families keep them going.  All very nice and sincere, but it has little to do with what occurs in the film at that point.  As for Ryan Bingham, he's given his moralistic comeuppance and is left staring blankly at an airport departure board.  But then there are the last words we hear Clooney utter as Bingham:  "The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over."  Huh?  I'm still waiting for someone to explain that bit of second rate poetry to me, or how it might relate to the supposed arc of the film's character.


In the end, Young Adult is every bit as muddled than Up in the Air.  One is taken on a dark ride, given  a few mordant good laughs, ultimately made to shake their head at poor Mavis Gary and walk away thinking some sort of edgy cinematic experience has been had (I would love to have five dollars for every time the word edgy will be too generously utilized in future reviews in which Young Adult is given an undeserving pass).    

Reitman and Cody are like two high school kids who want to strike their pose of rebellion and still be voted homecoming king and queen when all is said and done.  Young Adult might well enhance their popularity. But as for the efforts to produce something dark and daring, they're not rebels without a cause so much as - and here we return to the words of Mr. Westerberg - rebels without a clue.


db

Comments

  1. I thought Young Adult was actually an excellent deconstruction of rom-com tropes: "Oh no! The love of my life is about to marry the wrong person who's really a horrible asshole! ... But it's all right because the person I'm truly destined to be with was right here all along."

    What kind of person does it take to try to break up someone's marriage/engagement? A plucky, naive, and lovably persistent ingenue? No, a possible sociopath - delusional, narsissistic, lacking in empathy, drunk most of the time, depressed, and clinging to long-past glory days.

    And what happens when such a woman is broken down by the loss of her dream man? Does she realize the value of the dorky kind-hearted guy who's been there all along and fall in love with him? Of course not, she uses him for comfort sex to boost her self-esteem and slinks away before he wakes up.

    I was screaming at Matt to have enough self-respect to say no to her, but I know it was inevitable.

    I was very uncomfortalbe watching this movie and I agree with you that Mavis's conversation with Matt's sister was bizarre. I knew they would have her revert because people like Mavis don't change all at once and always find excuses to revert to their old ways - still that conversation with a rushed way of getting there. Nevertheless, I think it was a great movie, and haven't been able to stop thinking about it or reading other people's thoughts about it.

    Incidentally, I've read probably 15 reviews of Young Adult now along with forum discussions and none of them have used the word "edgy."

    ReplyDelete
  2. DXL,

    I think what you're describing in your first paragraph is either something grimly fascinating, if the filmmakers go for a kind of realism, or something darkly funny, if they go for black comedy. For me, Young Adult lands in between and ultimately seems rather muddled.

    There's all kind of messed up people out there, from the slightly narcissistic to the psychopathic (or even sociopathic, since you used the word). If you were uncomfortable watching Young Adult, I think you would have been extremely so had the script made Mavis someone truly, realistically toxic. I would have been happy to see that if it was done well, just as I would have been thrilled if Theron's great performance were let loose in a black comedy. Instead, I think Cody and Reitman wanted to do something bold, but then made sure there was an easy laugh (although some of Mavis' barbs are quite funny; I give Cody credit for that) when the mood started to get too dark.

    It all clearly worked for you more than me.

    As for the "edginess," there were not many reviews published when I wrote mine, since I saw a preview. But most of the small sampling at which I looked used the word edgy. Obviously, you've seen many more reviews. If you're sampling is a good reflection, I am quite happy to be wrong about this.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    db

    ReplyDelete
  3. very interesting movie because Mavis was a female psycopath.
    decides she want's her ex
    doesn't care that she'd destroy the lives of his wife and baby to get what she wants
    that is a psychopath
    the conversation with the sister; pure psycopath

    ReplyDelete
  4. the writer intentionally made Mavis a psychopath. Inability to connect with people, doesn't get why cracking on to a man at his baby's "naming ceremony" would be wrong

    both indicators of psychopathy

    but the best clue the writers knew is the way "Beth" is a special needs teacher who shows facial pictures to children. "They have to cognitively learn to recognise emotion."
    psychopathy.
    Mavis would have needed that early intervention - and no she cannot change, which is why she put down matt's sister so callously
    and her parents knew all along her psycopathic tendencies which is why they looked at each other in a meaningful way when she started saying crazy things implying Buddy's baby is ugly

    ReplyDelete
  5. correction: inability to understand emotion so as to have to cognitively learn to recognise it is the opposite of psychopathy

    that can indicate autism. failure to understand or recognise how others are feeling.

    Psychopaths are really very good at recognising how others are feeling but they just don't care.

    This skill coupled with a lack of caring enables them to be great manipulators.

    This film was a study of a female psychopath trying to manipulate, destroy lives to get what she wants, failing

    then not learning from her failure (as true psycopaths don't) going on to be just as cruel and anti-social to matt's sister and driving off back to the city to go back to being a cruel psychopath

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A Most Violent Year

The camelhair coat worn by Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) shines as brilliantly as anything seen in J.C. Chador's A Most Violent Year.  The coat is merely the golden tan of most such garments.  The New York of A Most Violent Year - interior and exterior - pales by comparison.  It's 1981, and a most violent year indeed in and around the great metropolis.  Almost none of  filth of Abel's world - the fuel oil of his business, the frowning elements, dirt kicked up by a vehicle chase - seem to adhere to the impeccable coat.  But as he tries to make a major expansion of his business while attempting to fend off the grip and violence of gangsterism one one side and encroaching law enforcment on the other, the poised, well dressed man is sorely pressed to keep himself clean in the most profound of respects.

A Most Violent Year is a sprawling American story told revealing small.  The canvas is certainly large, even if spread with muted color.  Much of the action of the film takes place…

The Babadook

"I'll soon take off my funny disguise....And once you see what's underneath...you're going to wish you were dead!"  And hello to you, too!  The rather dire warning comes from "Mr. Babadook" through the agency of a very persistent children's book that bears name of the monster.  Thus, The Babadook, writer and director Jennifer Kent's creepy and assured feature film debut.  Is the Babadook real? Merely a projection, a top-hatted fiend from a children's book that sets off a couple of already febrile minds?  Or perhaps...we have seen the monster and it is us?   
Ms. Kent demonstrates a very sure hand and supple knowledge of film history, the latter manifesting itself in  the action of The Babadook, the film's set design and a particular channel to which the television of Amelia Vannick (Essie Davis) seems permanently tuned, showing everything from the fantastical early cinema of George Melies to the more colorful exploits of Italian horror …

The King's Speech

“The family has been reduced to the lowest of creatures – we’ve become actors.”  A sad state of affairs indeed, as pronounced by the King of England, George V (Michael Gambon), to his son, Albert (Colin Firth).   The realization proves troubling in more ways than one to the stammering Duke of York .    
The advent of "the wireless," as radio was so quaintly known, meant that it was no longer enough for a monarch or his family to simply look the part and occasionally vouchsafe one of those swively, restrained wave to the masses.   A king or queen would have to speak, ingratiate him or herself to their subjects in their homes, their pubs, their places of work.  This meant that the Duke of York, paralyzed by that stammer since childhood, would be forced into the acting, the theater of public life.    Even worse, the relative safety on which he was counting, playing understudy to his brother, David (as ever, members of the royal family were as weighed down with as much nomenclatu…