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Young Adult (2011): adult failure as tragi-comedy.

July 10, 2012

ImageThis may be one of my new favourite films. I say that with caution because a) I feel that a lot and b) I would not be able to rewatch this film very often – perhaps not ever.

For starters Young Adult is a dark and often grim exploration of failure, alcoholism, depression and adulthood. Secondly, Charlize Theron’s performance is so subtle, so human, that is almost unbearable. As are many of the other performances (Patton Oswalt, Wolfe). Mavis’ treatment of her dog alone is hard to bear!

Reading viewer comments and reviews I get the impression that a good deal of Cody and Rietman’s narrative and characterisation was misinterpreted or went over people’s heads. Of course, because the film is so multilevelled and nuanced it is impossible to completely know and understand all of the characters’ motivations, or even their truthfulness (in Mavis’ case anyway – did she really miscarry Buddy’s child or is that an invention for dramatic effect, borrowed from one of her overheard adolescent conversations or reality TV shows?). This means that Theron’s performance and the film were both woefully undervalued, despite some nominations and critical praise. Theron’s facial expressions are a picture and her physical shifts from depressive drunk in sweats to blank and mask-like foundation-caked perfection are wonderful to witness.Image

I would even go so far as to say that this film betters the very good Up in the Air, which received much critical love. As a Cody written vehicle it is certainly better than the enjoyable Juno, which wore its cleverness on its sleeve. In contrast this film is sensitive, brutally honest and always sympathetic – qualities that many viewers unfortunately failed to find in Mavis, who has been described as a sociopath or at least narcissistic and is widely considered a deeply unsympathetic, horrible character. Even Theron herself describes Mavis in these terms, and she claims to have channeled her inner bitch for the role (and like many powerful, confident actresses Theron is commonly labelled in nasty-spirited women’s gossip sites like ‘Celebitchy’ as an ‘obvious bitch’).

But this is not what I got from Mavis (and I have many problems with simplistically reducing Mavis’ problems to her being a bitch). I felt for Mavis as a failed, depressed woman – self-absorbed and damaged, yes – desperately looking for much-needed affirmation in the last place one can return – one’s youth, the past and lost love. The fact that the dull, dutiful Buddy is no longer an option never occurs to her. It isn’t even clear it matters: for Mavis Buddy (Patrick Wilson) is merely a symbol, a pathetic ruse to reclaim her past glories and a past Self she was happy with. Mavis gleefully attaches herself to anyone who will listen to her, drink with her and put up with her awfulness. Her parents and the townspeople obviously don’t get her and either loathe or pity her. Mavis’ outrage when she finds out Buddy’s wife invited her to the baby shower only because she felt sorry for her is palpable and believable. I would have felt it too: the indignity of being patronised and pitied by the smug-marrieds, hometown losers from your past. I loved Mavis’ often deluded yet spirited bitchiness. She would never go down without a fight and as a contrast to the sweet suburban moms (also portrayed as real people) this characterisation is especially brave and impactful, helped by Theron’s powerful onscreen personality. But one does wonder what will become of Mavis alone in the world. Because what we are left with is this fact – she is utterly unable to make connections with other humans, she is a drunk, a professional failure and alone.

ImageWhat is wonderful about this film is that there is no easy resolution offered. Mavis is unreformed and unsaved to the last. Yes, she sleeps with the crippled Matt (the fantastic Patton Oswalt) but even this usually predictable cinematic narrative event serves little purpose in this narrative. She needed him at the time is all. Just like she needed his sister Sandra’s pep talk about appreciating her successes in the big city (the ‘Mini-Apple’) and not taking the criticism and failures of small town life and small town people to heart. Sandra’s plea for Mavis to take her with her is one of the saddest moments of the film.

There’s a lot going on in the movie, and much is open to interpretation. It’s main success lies in fine naturalistic performances from a talented and experienced cast on their game, its unshrinking realism without being cynical or misanthropic, and its multitude of painful and amusing small-town and big city moments. The urban and peri-urban landscapes of Minnesota make for a fine commentary on ordinary America without looking down at it. The film does not poke fun at or ‘yokelise’ the locals in the way some indie films do. It does not deify authentic small-town life like many conservative films do. Young Adult is deeply and meaningfully ironic in a way that Rietman’s and Cody’s other films have not been unable to achieve: irony with heart and humanity. A rare thing indeed.

  1. Very honest movie. Was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Check out my review.

  2. Konrad Scheffler permalink

    Awesome review!

    The problem with her “failed” career is that she simultaneously achieved so much more than the small-town characters can fully appreciate and so much less than her big-city expectations demand – she cannot communicate either the bigness or the smallness of it. This leads to a profound sense of isolation which I suspect is much more common than people realise.

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