Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary in YOUNG ADULTS (PHOTO SUPPLIED)
By Bernie Jablonski
“From the director of UP IN THE AIR and the writer of JUNO,” proclaim the ads for YOUNG ADULT. Those vaunted folks would, of course, be Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, respectively. Truth is, the marketing department is cutting the pedigree of the movie a little short. If it followed full disclosure, it would be “From the UP IN THE AIR and JUNO and the author of JUNO. (You could add “the writer of JENNIFER’S BODY for the symmetry, but…no.) Clumsy, maybe, but why not admit it?
And it’s a potent team. I would like to say something like “Cody and Reitman work their magic again, but actually, “hone their craft as a team” would be more like it. I loved JUNO. I know it has its detractors, and the thing that seems to be criticized the most is the fact that a girl so young and inexperienced in life can speak in such complex, standup-ready dialogue. And yes, I tend to agree. But in the hands of Ellen Page (whom I thought was the best thing about INCEPTION, you may recall), her lines ring with truth. It reminded of the time I was having lunch with some of my colleagues, and they were extolling the glories of GILMORE GIRLS, an episode of which I tried to watch. After about ten minutes I ran from the room, screaming. My point, I told my friends, was that every line of every character sounded like a screenwriter wrote it, with no regard for whether or not the character might actually say such thing in real life. It sounded like the writers just used the characters as vessels for their own cleverness.
One of my friends there said, “Oh, you must not care for FRASIER, then,” to which I replied that I loved FRASIER. In that late, lamented show, the rich, witty dialogue seemed appropriate for the mouths of the characters they came out of, while the joke that was on them was that even though the rest of the characters were not as educated or urbane, their direct, simple statements always seemed to put the Crane brothers into their place (which will someday be full of stacks of newspapers someday, if they’re not careful).
So, yes, YOUNG ADULT has the actress, writer and director to really carry the movie off. And here, rather than leaning so much on the words (some would say verbosity) that JUNO does, the camera wrings every nuance out of the eyes and ever-shifting body language of Charlize Theron. Her character, Mavis Gary, rises from her bed (with a bewitching twitch of the derriere, I might add), and immediately you think that she is a man, considering her environment and behavior. She looks like hell. She drinks soda right out of the bottle from the refrigerator. She feeds her dog a frozen dinner she heats up in the microwave, and places outside on the filthy terrace, and the little thing eats while we notice that there are empty frozen-dinner trays all about the balcony. She brushes her teeth (the movie-shorthand way of indicating someone is gross, ‘natch; why must they do that?) and for a split second, in the mirror, Theron’s face resembles how she looked in MONSTER.
She sits down to type “Chapter 1” of a novel she is apparently trying to write, and our first thought is that something interesting has happened in her life, and she thinks she’s old enough to grant the world a gift of a memoir. As we later learn, this is her job– she actually is the author of a young-adult book series, and owes the publishing company a book, which they are anxious to collect. (To bring our view of her a few steps down the ladder, we realize that she is a ghost writer.) She, of course, cannot type even a few words without distracting herself by reading her e-mails, and one in particular catches her eye. It is from an old high school beau, announcing the birth of a child. Attached to the letter is a picture, and in a gross/funny moment, she prints a copy of the picture.
Over the next day or so, Mavis cannot get that (badly duplicated) picture out of her mind, even after having loveless sex with a man who has tried so hard to impress on her his tireless devotion to humanity. She decides that the e-mail was some kind of a portent, or more likely (at least to her) a cry for help from a man trapped in a marriage and now saddled with a baby. She packs up her little dog and leaves Minneapolis for her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota for a rescue mission. Once there, she runs into a guy who wasn’t in her circle back in high school, the victim of a hate crime. He’s played by Patton Oswalt- eerily, his character’s name is Matthew). After a few too many shots, Mavis confides her plan to win her old flame back, and even though he becomes her confidante, Matt consistently tries to talk her out of it.
The boyfriend’s name is Buddy Slade (no, really) and is played by Patrick Wilson of TV’s A GIFTED MAN (has that been canceled yet?) He does meet her, in a restaurant (not the old bar of her choosing) during the day (not by night, as she wanted), and (very) slowly, he sees through her and begins to realize what’s going on….
I noticed a thread on the Internet Movie Database that posits the movie as an indie version of BAD TEACHER. That’s unfair, if not a bit incredible. True, if BT (a movie I reviewed here- poorly) had some sense of wit, heart or character development (that does not occur in the last five minutes of the movie), there might be a case. But I find it hard to think of the two movies riding the same synapse through my brain. Cameron Diaz did the best she could with an obvious script filled with stereotypes, but Charlize Theron has much more going for her here.
Mavis is a much better-developed character. It’s a pretty commonly held belief that for a character to be interesting she has to either change or else be so outrageous in her behavior that we don’t notice the lack of change. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what ultimately happens with Mavis. As I said before, Theron conveys Mavis’ layers (and there’s more than one) not only with her speech, but with her body, her movements. And those eyes. Sure, we’re given the opportunity to drink in her beautiful hazel eyes in an early close-up, and to see her rise like a phoenix from her dour clothes and appearance. We just sense from her so many things: her contempt for the small town she grew up in, her disdain for the chain stores that are taking it over, her loathing of babies…from the looks of her eyes, from the way she tosses her head or allows her body to stiffen. I went to an all-boys’ school (my loss) so I have no report on the “girl we used to hate in high school,” but I’m sure a lot of women would. Theron is perfect.
The movie is about a triangle, more or less, and Cody crafts her characters so they are not stereotypical placeholders. Wilson’s Buddy character really seems like the type of man who has grown up since high school, devoted to his wife and children, and responding to Mavis’ advances in a way that is both credible and sympathetic . (That Theron does not come across as a one-dimensional harridan and garners our sympathy as well is a tribute to her acting.) The character who really hurdles across the expectations of the audience (if he could…hurdle) is Matt, the sidekick. Neither gay nor sassy, but plenty nerdy, he at first seems like he’s going to be the “conscience” of Mavis, but because of the writing and acting, he really is a well-developed character, not a character device serving a Greek-chorus “function.” Their scenes together are thoroughly enjoyable, and again, the dialogue seems to rise from their personalities and situations, not from the pen of one or many writers trying to jam in as many jokes as possible.
Attention must be paid, as well, to two other actresses in the movie. As Mavis’ “competition,” Buddy’s wife Beth, Elizabeth Reaser makes her character refreshingly knowing and able to give as good as she gets, but by being kind, not by returning “zingers.” There is also a wonderful scene near the end of the movie with Matt’s sister Sandra (Collette Wolf), where the two are sitting at a table, talking about what has happened up to that point, with the honest words being spoken working at cross-purposes. Again, with the simple act of offering a cup of coffee, Theron sets the tone for the whole scene.
In what I guess you would call the Allison Janney role, Jill Eikenberry makes good use of her limited screen time, but Hedda Gary, Mavis’ mother, is not the knowing character that Janney played in JUNO. You can really sense that she has hopes for her daughter, but has absolutely no clue about what to do for her. When seated together at dinner, Mavis makes perhaps the clearest statement of self-assessment in the movie, and her mother and father laugh it off and continue passing food.
As I said earlier, this movie is a refinement of the themes and storytelling methods Cody and Reitman used in JUNO. (I particularly enjoyed the motifs that hold the movie together: a song played over and over until it is silenced in a telling way, the inanities of the Kardashians perpetually being heard on Mavis’ television, the parallels between the protagonist of Mavis’ book and Mavis’ own life…) I almost wish you HAD a girl you used to hate in high school, just to see how much you think Theron’s performance has her down.
Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.