You know how sometimes you’re watching a movie and you feel like you don’t like the character as much as you’re supposed to? They’re meant to be relatable but you just think they’re an asshole? Well, YOUNG ADULT is the rare case where I felt like I liked the protagonist more than I was probly supposed to. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a real selfish asshole, she’s trying to do something crazy and unethical that could ruin people’s lives. So I felt kinda guilty about how much I liked and related to her.
I’m pretty sure I’m a nicer person than Mavis, and less deluded. She’s a ghost writer of a once-popular series of young adult novels, living with her purse-sized dog in a highrise in Minneapolis. When she gets an email birth announcement from her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) she goes back to her home town of Mercury, MN, and tries to get him to leave his wife for her.
I wouldn’t do anything like that. I guess the worst parts of her are nothing like me, but I feel a kinship because I recognize that I share some of her other bad qualities: Avoiding family and others for no good reason. Not remembering people who seem to remember her well. Not being as impressed by babies as normal people, or remembering their gender (“There it is,” she says when she sees it). Good move, actually – I would’ve fucked up and said the wrong “he” or “she.” That’s okay with a dog but I think people take it more personally when it’s made out of their DNA.
When she arrives back in her home town of Mercury, Mavis drives past a Staples, a Chili’s, a KFC-Taco-Bell-Pizza-Hut, and it rings so true. Whenever I travel I see the same logos, the same buildings, and I get depressed by the idea that I’ve gone hundreds of miles and I’m seeing strip malls identical to ones anywhere off I-5. I relate to Mavis getting depressed by this place, her wanting to get the fuck away from there, but also that part of her that wants to come back and let everyone know she moved away to the city and was successful in some creative pursuit. I even relate to her insecurity about whether or not her book constitutes success (in my opinion my book is better than hers although hers probly paid her bills for a while). I mean, if I’m ever insecure about wanting to impress somebody it’s probly gonna be the type of person that’s not impressed that you wrote a book about Steven Seagal movies.
Mavis is obviously a jerk to look down on her people the way she does, and to not understand that they’re happy and don’t see themselves as losers like she does. But at the same time she’s not entirely wrong. Mercury is kind of a shithole. The problem is she figured out what she hates but hasn’t found that good of an alternative. I agree with her preference for the city but also notice that her life there isn’t so great either. In fact her apartment doesn’t look that much different from her hotel room. While the suburban squares she looks down on are having actual fun playing “mom rock” in bars with their friends she’s laying around watching the Kardashians on TV, drinking Diet Coke out of a 2-liter bottle first thing in the morning.
The best and smartest friend she makes when she comes back home is Buddy (Patton Oswalt from BLADE: TRINITY), a grown man who lives with his sister who he sort of hates, and his creative passion (other than gluing together models) is to distill his own bourbon… which he and Mavis then use to try to forget their problems. He truly can’t let go of what happened to him in high school (because it left him permanently disabled and disfigured) but does a better job of it than Mavis does.
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YOUNG ADULT is just the type of dry, dark, uncomfortable humor I like, but it’s a little more of a drama than the other anti-hero comedies it reminds me of, like BAD SANTA. It’s not nearly as jokey. They could’ve called it BAD AUTHOR to fit in that new BAD tradition, but it’s not really that much about her life as a young adult author. It’s just kind of ironic that this person could be molding the minds of young girls, or maybe appropriate that a woman who needs to grow up knows how to speak directly to actual girls.
Remember how I used to go off on tangents in my reviews? Here’s one. I don’t really get this “Young Adult” or “YA” thing lately. After the popularity of Twilight and the pre-ordained popularity of The Hunger Games some of the entertainment media feel they have to cover the “young adult” genre of literature. There’s even a section of Badass Digest called Forever Young Adult that’s all about it.
Now, the boys are all saying that this HUNGER GAMES movie lived up to the hype they participated in creating for it, so maybe there’s something to those books, I don’t know. But I still don’t get the Adults Reading YA phenomenon. We are not talking about a genre, like super heroes or magic unicorns, that can be done in many ways for different types and maturities of people. We’re not talking about a medium, like illustrated funnystrip books, which can be used for harmless kiddie fluff about Spiderman punching a guy dressed up as a rhinoceros OR sophisticated adult fare where Spiderman gets raped. I mean isn’t “young adult” by definition an age group? Isn’t being into young adult like being into programming aimed at a specific (younger than you) age demographic?
It’s not even like a little kid book where they might sneak in some themes for the adult that’s reading to the kid to understand. It’s designed for the 11 or 12 year old girl to read to herself, right? In my opinion there are dozens, maybe even hundreds of books out there that are written for adults, and because I’m a slow reader I’m pretty sure I won’t live long enough to read all of them. But if I do maybe I’ll then move down to the books they wrote for little kids. Until then let’s stay out of this, grownups. It’s none of our business.
(NOTE: glancing at the the Forever Young Adult websight I can see that it doesn’t take it all that seriously, it seems like kind of a guilty pleasure of women drinking martinis and reading cheesy books that make them nostalgic for their teen years. So I can understand it there. I guess it was this “Why You Should Care About the Hunger Games” piece, combined with the months of wall-to-wall Hungermania on my colleague Drew’s sight, that had me scratching my head.)
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This is some of the best work for everybody involved. The director is Jason Reitman, who did UP IN THE AIR and JUNO. I liked both of those movies, but have always been kind of skeptical about him having any depth. I think I’m biased because I hated the smarmy trailer for THANK YOU FOR SMOKING so much. Maybe I’ll have to give in and give that movie a chance. Anyway, to me YOUNG ADULT is by far his best movie. It perfectly balances a very tricky tone, it’s beautifully shot (worth watching on blu-ray), it never made me think “oh, this part he’s trying to be like Wes Anderson” or anything like that. He’s come into his own.
But I see it more as writer Diablo Cody’s movie. It definitely seems like her voice on screen. I guess she’s still kind of a controversial figure. All the hype about her made me skeptical too, but to me the humanity shines through the sometimes self-conscious dialogue and references in JUNO, and in retrospect that stuff seems like part of the message of the movie, that Juno tries to shield herself by making clever quips and being up on SUSPIRIA but underneath she’s a vulnerable human being. JENNIFER’S BODY wasn’t as good but I think I gave Cody more credit on that than most people did, so I’ve been won over. (I hear her TV show United States of Tara is good, but haven’t seen it.)
If you still associate Cody with that “home skillet” thing at the beginning of JUNO don’t worry, there’s nothing like that in this one at all. The only references are to songs and bands that Mavis listened to with this guy when they were in high school in the ’90s. Like Mandrill she has a cassette player in her car so that she can listen to a particular tape that has meaning from her past. And I figured out from the credits that some of the score is kind of doing jazzy versions of Pearl Jam songs and stuff, but I didn’t recognize them. That music has no nostalgia for me at all and still felt perfectly organic in the movie, so it passes the smell test.
This is one of Theron’s great performances. Remember when she won an Oscar playing Aileen Wuernos, and she had to have special effects makeup to be believable? Here she has a role where her looks don’t make her seem like Hollywood bullshit, because looking like that would help her get away with being so horrible. And everybody else is great too: Oswalt as the warm and funny face of suburban misery, Wilson in another great well-meaning-but-clueless-guy-trying-to-get-through-uncomfortable-situation. And I want to give special notice to a small part by Elizabeth Reaser Collette Wolfe as Beth Sandra, Buddy’s sister. It was killing me where I knew her from, but she’s that poor girl in THE FOOT FIST WAY who just wants to take a tae kwan do lesson without getting hit on. Here she’s funny and sad and pulls off one of the trickiest moments, a part that makes the movie for me and probly breaks it for some of the people that hate it.
CRUCIAL ENDING SCENE DISCUSSED NEXT 3 (THREE) PARAGRAPHS
At the end of the movie Mavis realizes she’s hit rock bottom, and everything has presented itself to her to teach her a valuable lesson about life, to understand what she’s missing about where she came from and how it can make her happier. And she sits down with that character whose job it is to give her some much-needed words of advice, some folksy wisdom that pulls it all together. To give her that final nudge that will make her appreciate what she has and understand what she has to let go of, be better to herself, be less hateful of others, be a better person.
Except… this character gives her terrible advice. She tells her exactly what she wants to hear. And I think Mavis fuckin knows it, too, that this is not right. But it’s easier to take the bad advice than to have to change. She’s relieved to not have to change. She lucked out.
It’s so great not only because it’s true to life (lots of people never learn their lesson) but also because of how it plays with our knowledge of movies. You understand how this story is supposed to end, and it might even feel earned in this case. So when the pieces don’t fall into place and the rules are broken it has kind of a satisfying anarchist kick to it. This crazy bitch has defeated Hollywood formula. If you loved this like I did and you ever need a reason to bang your head against the wall, I recommend reading the YOUNG ADULT message boards on IMDb. You’ll find plenty of people who think “nothing happened” because she didn’t become a better person at the end. (Bonus: those people who are so outraged by the existence of product placement that they never notice when it’s being used as a critique of the corporatization of our culture that you would think would be the reason whey the were against product placement in the first place.)
OKAY THAT WAS IT
If you’ve been reading my reviews the last month or so you can see I’ve been pleasantly surprised by alot of stuff I’ve seen lately. I’ve been having some good movie-watching luck, but of all the things I’ve seen lately this is the one that hit me the strongest and stayed in my thoughts for days after. I can see that it’s not for everybody, but man did I love it. If I had seen it last year it would’ve been high up on that list I made.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.