REVIEW: Theron, Reitman and Cody Combine For Stark, Sublime Young Adult

Movieline Score: 9

I don't pretend to be a feminist or even understand feminism beyond accepting the fundamental concept of gender equality. That has always seemed straightforward enough, despite the vagaries and complications evident in myriad cultural examples from Michele Bachmann to Margaret Cho to Diablo Cody, the stripper-turned-scribe whose three produced screenplays to date -- Juno, Jennifer's Body and this week's Young Adult -- make up some of contemporary cinema's rangier ruminations on feminism. Or at least what I think is feminism.

Not to be reductive, either. Reteaming Cody with Juno director Jason Reitman, Young Adult offers intriguing points of view about a lot of subjects: The perils of nostalgia; the mythology of midlife crises; the value of community; and the futility of self-loathing come immediately to mind -- but not long before the mind hurtles back to the continuity of Cody's women. Much has also been disseminated and discussed about the screenwriter's leap into "maturity" here, as though trading the famously pulsating patois and quirk of Juno and Jennifer's Body for the clipped, unfettered cruelty of Young Adult signifies some kind of creative enlightenment. It does make for a fine talking point, I can't lie. But ultimately, it's all a distraction from the central struggle of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), whose journey from strong-willed, middle-class Minnesotan to homecoming queen to uneasy young bride to pseudonymous novelist and booze-bleeding urban waster is less a trajectory than a bold underscore beneath the question: What if feminism simply means having the freedom to fuck up?

I know, I know: Define "fuck up." Which is exactly the point of Young Adult -- the point of all of Cody's heroines, really, who both endure and perpetrate acts of social alienation, romantic predation, emotional abuse, sexual violence, and even ritual murder. These women are products of their environment only insofar as they might be, as in the case of Jennifer's Body, in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Of course, Megan Fox's character sought the wrong place, but that's another story altogether.)

In Mavis, we are faced with a woman virtually possessed by her capacity for agency. Reitman, Cody and Theron sharpen this relief by first sketching her in the throes of inertia: a Diet Coke-swigging, Kardashian-peeping young-adult novelist in Minneapolis with not a word to show for her looming deadline. Only after a few daily cycles of this will she argue she was provoked to action, sharing a grainy image of her high-school sweetheart's newborn baby with a friend, comparing its receipt in a bulk e-mail to an act of war by said sweetheart's wife. The friend's glassy-eyed takeaway reflects Mavis's true instinct back at the viewer, who looks on as Mavis flees the aftermath of a one-night stand to drive straight to her suburban hometown of Mercury, Minn. Her quest: To reconnect with Buddy (Patrick Wilson), the sweetheart and new father who may or may not have gotten away in their flannel-swaddled adolescence.

Hardly an inhospitable habitat on the tundra, Mercury nevertheless welcomes its onetime darling back with a tableau of big-box stores and chain restaurants that return Mavis's wary sneers. She resists its ordinariness at every turn, defying a hotel clerk who inquires about the toy dog wriggling in her purse, slurping down mid-tier bourbon and faking BlackBerry messages rather than engage with the dive-bar locals. Among them, however, she meets Matt (Patton Oswalt), an erstwhile classmate whose crippling beating Mavis only recalls as the consequence of Matt being the target of especially vicious homophobes. Not that he's actually gay -- just one of Mavis's many preconceptions that fall away as her impulses attune to the stark, silent mechanics of a community that she not only didn't leave behind, but which may have in fact passed her by.

Ugliness ensues. Mavis relentlessly puts the moves on Buddy, humiliates his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), evades her own parents, and torments Matt's confidence. The film drags and sulks into its climax, which comprises three scenes that hone Young Adult's perspective to either a bracingly honest or suicidally smug point. You decide: It culminates with Mavis finding a confessor in Matt's sister Sandra (played enchantingly by Collette Wolfe, matching Theron note for note), and what happens next has so far has tended to galvanize the film's enemies and embolden its supporters.

For the record (and review purposes, I suppose), I'm among the latter. Young Adult is the first of Reitman's films from which I haven't felt him choking out a message; ironically, its rawness yields the humanity that he thought he was wringing from Up in the Air in particular, which got nowhere by assaying only the effect and not the cause of various recession-era ruthlessness. He and Cody have turned that rock over, with Theron doing the impossibly heavy lifting of making a woman inclined to selfishness, irresponsibility and condescension somehow worth our time and interest -- mostly because this film is aimed at a generation for whom each of Mavis's darkest compulsions are never far from its own. Indeed, it's easy to resent Mavis for not behaving better -- for unleashing unthinkable malevolence on a populace that cannot or will not defend itself for whatever reason -- or to dismiss Cody and Reitman as nothing more than charlatans hamfistedly bending the light of the zeitgeist. But keeping Young Adult's big reveal in mind, the picture ultimately forces those around Mavis -- both onscreen and off -- to reconcile what they will and won't tolerate from a woman.

Love it or hate it, this is the ethical root note of all of Cody's work to date. Previously muddled in the cultural noise of Oscar season or a leading lady's intransigence (talk about not having the freedom to fuck up!), that challenge harmonizes today with the likes of We Need to Talk About Kevin and Sleeping Beauty -- other marvelous new work about women who face the deeply unpleasant consequences of defying expectation. But what does it mean? And why now? Maybe it's a sheer thematic coincidence amid the chorus of movies featuring boys behaving badly, violently, childishly, or all three. But from what I can tell, I think it's likelier -- even under the spiritual pall of Young Adult -- that Cody and her peers guiding us onto a frontier where there's nothing left to do but listen. Ready or not, ladies and gentlemen, it's time.

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  • Charles says:

    I'm predicting this movie is going to utterly BOMB at the box office. It has nothing to do with the quality of the movie. It's just that the TV ad yields no clue as to what the movie's about. Not good. I'll see it, though.

  • I worry about the opposite happening: Many people will think they're off to see a comedy about a grown-up mean girl, which they kind of are, but will be pissed to discover that it's actually a pitch-black comedy/drama about said mean girl tumbling off the emotional rails. It'll be like _The American_, when all those viewers thought they were checking out a George Clooney action thriller and got some meditation on an assassin's existential crisis. And they were _not_ happy. Word of mouth imploded.

  • Charles says:

    I loved it, though I'm not entirely sure why. It certainly has a lot to do with Charlize Theron, who in my book is running neck and neck with Michelle Williams for the year's best actress. And part of it may be that I can relate to her character in a couple of ways I don't want to mention. (Your line about the film being "aimed at a generation for whom each of Mavis’s darkest compulsions are never far from its own" rings so true.)

    At any rate, whatever the reasons, I really enjoyed it. Now, care to take a guess what prominent movie critic HATED everything about it other than Theron and Patton?

  • Naye in VA says:

    I guess you actually have to be part of the audience the movie was aimed at. I did go to the movie on a whim thinking it would be funny and found myself pleasantly horrified and uncomfortable during the whole movie, and left the theater thinking "God i hope i never fall so hard into self-loathing" I think that was the point. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and Mavis was the poster child for letting self hate literally drive you crazy. If you saw the movie and missed that point, well get outside of your tiny self righteous box