Black Comedy | 94 Minutes | 2011 | United States
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Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a 37-year-old ghostwriter for a series of young adult novels soon to be cancelled, returns to her small Minnesota hometown, angling to hook up with her old high school flame, who is married and has just become a father. Her attempts at seduction are already inappropriate, but prove much grosser than this, culminating in a blowout at a birthday party. As the film progresses it uncovers genuine trauma: divorce, isolation, a miscarriage aged just twenty and with the man whose marriage she would now ruin.
But this third collaboration between Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody – the second with Reitman directing a Cody script, after Juno (2007) – is nevertheless a comedy, and hilariously so for those who aren’t too prim or mistaken to laugh. Compared to other works which ply a similar trade in dark, caustic humour within the context of light entertainment, it is consistent and relentless, and when there are rapprochements with the world of sentiment, these come fraught with compromise.
Mavis is not crazy or ill, and she is not all wrong either. In a bravura performance by Charlize Theron, the character bears vividly traits we might share: how many of us define ourselves in relation to a long-favourite song (in Mavis’s case, ‘The Concept’ by Teenage Fanclub); exist on a depressed diet (here it is too much alcohol, Diet Coke, and KFC); or remain somehow tethered to the past? In fact Mavis has all but escaped her dreary and judgemental hometown, and has experienced career success in the big city, but quickly retreats to the age and attitudes of high school partly because it is a world she already treads in her writing, partly out of a certain vindictiveness, and partly because divorce has left her in her late thirties without a significant group of contemporaries. Her arrogance remains an asset as much as a flaw, and if the narrative she constructs about herself is tilted and cracking, she is little worse than those who still live her twenty-year-old slights.
Young Adult suggests something of the stultified atmosphere about a childhood home; comments too on the perilous existence of professional creatives, with a fine line between awed acclaim and rank contempt; and reflects at an angled distance on the fact of ageing women and their relationship to the movie industry. Mavis forms a peculiar bond with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who attended the same high school but proved a decidedly unpopular teen, and wound up crippled after a brutal homophobic assault. Mavis and Matt, both outsiders now, instinctively connect, but there is no resolution to their arc, nothing approaching a happy ending.
Mavis doesn’t really need saving. Towards the end of the film, in conversation with Matt’s sister, she admits ‘I have a lot of problems’. ‘Can’t you get a new dress?’, comes the facile response, only for Mavis to continue blandly with her thought, stating ‘It’s really difficult for me to be happy’. Yet who cannot relate to this? Right lane must turn right, but perhaps this swift pep talk was precisely what Mavis needed.