The key to YOUNG ADULT’s protagonist, Mavis Gray, is her response to a particular question. Appearing bedraggled and wine-stained on the doorstep of her human doormat, Matt Freehauf, she is asked by him what happened. The audience knows she has been devastated by having her illusions taken from her. Her answer, though, eschews that. Instead, she replies that her dress got ruined. That is precisely how she sees the world. In a dicey move that pays off, Mavis is not intended to inspire sympathy for her plight. Rather, writer Diablo Cody, director Jason Reitman, and most of all Charlize Theron as Mavis, have conspired to make sure that Mavis is a creature whose mission is completely unsympathetic. And while she is an object of morbid fascination, she also becomes the object of a profound schadenfreude, the high school prom queen who gets her comeuppance, but in a brilliant and brilliantly risky movie, she does so without actually having the full implications of that sink in.
Mavis, having escaped to Minneapolis from her small town roots, now lives in a soulless bubble. When she is hit with a triple whammy of divorce, the cancellation of her book series aimed at the eponymous young adult audience with one installment left to turn in, and a birth announcement from her high school sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson) and his wife, she is spurred to ill-considered action. Leaving behind a one-night stand snoozing in her bed, she packs up her perky dog, her old mix-tape, and heads back to her hick hometown on an unholy mission to reclaim Buddy, whom she has convinced herself is still pining for her. Hes not. Nor is the hometown where she was once the reigning beauty. Mavis, in a delectable mix of acute self-awareness and delusional cluelessness, moves forward with her scheme, changing personas as easily as her nail color, with only Matt (Patton Oswalt), the high-school, and now grown-up, geek with a limp to serve as the Jiminy Cricket-like voice of unvarnished conscience. Its a voice that falls on deaf ears despite the two of them forming an unexpected bond. All credit to both Theron and Oswalt who deliver superb performances worthy of every award available, that the basis of that affinity, pain buried deep and rooted in high school experience, has a commonality despite the roots being so different. His from a traumatic case of misidentification that has shaped his life since graduating, hers from the inchoate emptiness of never having been able to move on from her glory days. Oswalt is sensitive but never sentimental, inviting anything but pity as the sounding board for the girl he never got over. Theron is equally subtle in a broadly drawn character, shooting daggers of contempt and scowling as only a woman who knows for a fact that an unmitigated hateful look will detract not a whit from her beauty, but also being able to externalize the inner glow of memory where Buddy is concerned, or at least her illusion of him. She is at once the woman convinced that she is giving Buddy what he really wants, and the teenager with the innocent glow that bespeaks the certainty of a future as glorious as the present.
In a boldly crafted juxtaposition, there is never a moment in the film when the audience is unaware of how misguided Mavis is. Buddy, who in the person of Wilson is undeniably handsome, but his character, a sweet man full of goodness and compassion, is hardly compelling, nor is he meant to be. When she spackles on make-up and fawns over him in her low-cut dress, she is not seeing him, though, in another clever bit of writing, there is the sneaking suspicion that he sees her and very clearly.
Watching Mavis is fascinating, seeing how far she will go, and wondering when it will all collapse around her. YOUNG ADULT is as funny and as tragic as it is uncompromising. If lessons are to be learned, it prefers to hew close to the real life view that unpleasant people just dont change, and in that spirit those lessons are strictly for the audience, not the protagonist. The ongoing narration of the book Mavis works on as the film progresses shows a woman who speaks with an adolescent voice not because she has the gift of memory, but because despite aging, she has not matured. And yet there is also something perversely fascinating in watching someone pursue a goal with such single-minded fervor and against all common sense. Mavis is a sort of anti-Joan of Arc fueled not by the voice of angels, but rather that of the reality show stars that form her preferred and constant background noise. Misguided, sure, yet anyone so dedicated to her mission is deserving of a grudging sort of respect. For focus, at least.