Young Adult essentially riffs off of an old, familiar story line (young woman goes to messy, stalkerish lengths to win back old flame a la My Best Friend's Wedding), but screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman's film is the freshest comedy of the year. Cody has observed, "I don't think coolness used to be such a commodity among adults. And now it is. When I was growing up, the moms on the playground had pants pulled up to their boobs and curlers in their hair. And now, when I take my son to the playground, there is this weird clique mentality; you still have to be hot. And you still have to be 'with it.' I think everybody's in this state of sustained adolescence." In Young Adult, Charlize Theron, who disappeared into serial killer Aileen Wuornos in her Oscar-winning turn in Monster, disappears here too, with mesmerizing intensity as divorced Mavis Gary, who lives in a nondescript highrise in Minneapolis with her neglected, skittery little dog, ghostwriting Sweet Valley High-esque teenybopper romances (something that's already becoming dated), swilling Diet Coke (like a baby to a formula bottle), watching bad Kardashian reality TV, and obsessively listening to the tunes of her past (90s pop litters her iTunes, and she drudges up a mix tape, that the film cleverly and movingly shows the inwards of in the dazzling opening credits). In many ways, I found myself relating to her more than any character I could think of from this year, and perhaps Mavis will be a refreshing icon for lost thirtysomethings, but her selfishness, utter disdain for others (she squints ruefully at her manicurists who strip off her cuticles and lacquer her whittled-down nails... "fresh starts," whatever they may be, is one of Cody's main themes) will potentially offend. When Gary receives news of a new baby from her old boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), she returns to her laconic suburban town named Mercury (which conjures 'poison') and attempts to win him back or at least, connect with him emotionally and sexually again. Slade (a riff, I wonder, is off of the word 'slayed' since 'slaying the dragon' is a popular young adult adventure story trope and basically could be metaphorical of the film's journey), who seems like a genuine, lowkey guy, is married to a special needs teacher named Beth (Elizabeth Reaser). Much of the film depends upon its ride, so I won't give too many details away, but there's a key scene when Mavis learns of Beth's profession and shoots a look that's both incredulous and envious; her insecurity is palatable (it's a pitch perfect moment of many by Theron). Patton Oswalt plays a former classmate who runs into Mavis at an old bar hangout. He's been scarred and left permanently handicapped from an incident in high school. Hobbling on a crutch (symbolically so, as Oswalt and Theron point out in a later, bitterly funny scene), he shares advice and moonshine with Mavis, while simultaneously pining and pitying her. Oswalt, painting the muscled figurines of superheroes he can never physically be (but on an emotional level, he, in a way, becomes) is the film's most sympathetic character and he helps soften some of the film's (and Mavis's) callow edge.
Reitman and Cody teamed up for the big hit Juno: a smart, observant comedy about an adolescent who accidentally gets pregnant and mulls over keeping or giving her baby away. Young Adult is essentially an extension of that movie, and a richer and darker (less crowdpleasery) tale. It lacks the sweep of Reitman's Up in the Air but is perhaps a deeper and more acute character study. He knows how to strip gloss and expose flawed characters and American embarrassments. Mavis travels to Mercury's quiet shopping mall, which appears as desolate as they all do these days (a ghostly reminder of the throne of bustling 90s teen culture) and flinches at all the newly constructed strip malls and 'Kentaco Hut.' It's the first film I can think of since, perhaps, Ghost World that actually shows an authentic American suburban environment! Young Adult's cinematography may be overlooked for showier affairs but it's filmed with a distinct look by Eric Steelberg and edited with flair by Dana E. Glauberman. As mentioned before, the opening credits, backed by Teenage Fanclub's "The Concept" (the opening track to their album Bandwagonesque which beat out Nirvana's Nevermind in a 1991 Spin year-end album fan poll) are a stunner.
Young Adult is the caustic, sadder sister to Kristen Wiig's Bridesmaids. Spilled punch isn't slapstick here, it's a devastating moment, and an emotional trigger for Mavis's public breakdown, written and performed with sadness, wit, particularity and ambivalence that the film as a whole beautifully orchestrates. Mavis may be a hard one to cheer on, but she's a veritable embodiment of the difficulty of shaking off the past and starting anew. ****