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USA 2011
Directed by
Jason Reitman
94 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
4 stars

Young Adult

Synopsis: Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is an alcoholic 37-year old writer of young adult fiction. Struggling to write the final novel in the series, she is interrupted by an email announcing the birth of a baby to her high school ex-boyfriend. Unable to think of any reason he’d have to contact her, she interprets it as a plea for help and returns to her home town to reclaim her man.

Fans of Juno are going to be shell-shocked if they expect another quirky feel-good comedy from the same writer and director team. Young Adult is black comedy of the kind that I haven't seen since Jody Hill's, Observe And Report (2009). It’s a study of a mentally-unbalanced woman coming apart at the seams and attempting, by self-delusion, to reverse the trainwreck of her life. It’s as if Diablo Cody watched Up In The Air, shook her head at Reitman’s hamfisted take on the perpetual teenager forced to grow up and failing, and decided to fix him up with the same idea executed differently, this time with real skill and insight.

Mavis is incredibly unpleasant, but she’s also fascinating. Divorced (it’s not clear how recently) she’s regressed back to her teenage years and is living the self-indulgent dream that a writer’s work schedule permits: Late nights, late mornings, drunken binges and bad dates. And fascinated along with us is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who had the locker next to her through high school and like all geeks, was invisible to her. He’s the difference between childish and child-like. Older, wiser and self-aware, he still enjoys painting toys and lives in his parent’s basement, but he’s emotionally mature while Mavis isn’t. The only other person in town who didn’t really grow up, they bond even though Mavis doesn’t recognise him, because they’re the closest thing each has to a peer. When she remembers him, it’s as the “hate crime guy”, permanently crippled after a group of jocks beat him near to death because of a rumour that he was gay. The quiet notes of how hateful small town life can be are muted, but incredibly effective. Matt is our guide to Mavis’s meltdown, a Greek chorus trying to save her from herself for the simplest of reasons. The geek really wants the girl. So instead of a snarky commentary throughout, there’s a gentleness to the truth he’s continually pointing out that stops it alienating us from Mavis. The unrequited yearning in Matt is sweet and sad.

That said, Young Adult is really squirm-inducing. Mavis is determined to break up a happy marriage and oblivious to the fact she doesn’t have a prayer. Her target, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), is oafish and clueless, but she can’t see what a dope he is and then things get complicated. The “adults” of the story, Mavis’s parents included, all display an inability to grow up and move on. Mavis might be the only one living like a teenager, but nobody seems particularly mature. Everyone gets skewered, and it’s all building up to the moment when everything has to come out in the open. And when it does, it’s a raw moment full of pain, regret and jealousy. For all Mavis’s sneering, she’s envious of the humdrum lives she looks down upon. The pain she reveals is intensely human, and the payoff as she seeks the one person she can rely upon for comfort is genuinely sad in its self-awareness.

Young Adult isn’t a pleasant film about nice things. But it’s funny and warmly humane. You’ll squirm a bit, laugh a lot, and by the end you’ll likely despair at the selfishness and immaturity of people. A film that can do that to you and remain constantly entertaining is pretty bloody awesome.




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