Review: Young Adult (2011)


Young Adult, the new film by director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, is very different from their first collaboration: the delightful crowd-pleaser, Juno (2007). Almost devoid of the charms of Juno, Young Adult is instead a darkly funny, frequently awkward, and sad film. But amid the uncomfortable situations and between the unpleasant and forlorn characters, Reitman and Cody still generate some warmth.

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a ghostwriter of shoddy young-adult school-clique fiction living in Minneapolis. She drinks too much hard liquor and Diet Coke, and watches too much reality TV. The slow, quiet, cold first few minutes before the title sequence set up the character well, showing her empty life to be far from the supposed excitement and vitality of living in the big city. When Mavis gets an email containing a picture of her former boyfriend’s newborn baby, she decides to return to her small hometown and win her old flame, who is now happily married, back.

Despite Mavis’s ludicrous mission and the many cutting moments in the film, Young Adult is not a satire, or at most is a very mild one. The purpose of the film is not to ridicule and criticize, but rather to simply show—to offer up the story and characters for our consideration, feelings, and understanding. Cody and Reitman are not interested in passing judgement on Mavis or the other characters. Ultimately, the movie generates more pity and empathy then scorn.

Indeed, Reitman has a knack for generating pathos and ethos; that is to say, he has a talent for developing sympathy and understanding for his characters, whatever their personalities and circumstances, and also for capturing the spirit of specific communities and our age in general. Think about how Thank You for Smoking (2005) turns into a father-son drama, or how Up in the Air (2009) takes the pulse of recession-era America. I also appreciate Reitman’s commitment to making films set in places other than New York City or Los Angeles. In doing so, though, he neither glorifies nor mocks small towns or wintry states. He shows the Midwest as it is.

The performances and dialogue in Young Adult feel natural, for the most part, despite a few obvious contrivances. For example, the fact that Mavis is a writer of young-adult fiction seems more like a character device than a believable profession for the former high school queen-bitch.

Diablo Cody is very adept at writing against the grain. In Young Adult, she troubles both our judgments and our sympathies. Consider Patton Oswalt’s physically disabled loner-geek, Matt Freehauf. During high school, we learn, a group of jocks viciously beat him in the woods because they thought he was gay. Cody taps into the bullying crisis in America. However, she immediately frustrates our simple outrage, as Freehauf bitterly explains how the media gave him a lot of attention, and tried to label the incident as a hate crime, but only until they found out he wasn’t actually gay. Then he was just some fat guy who got his ass kicked. Cody complicates things even further. Later, when Mavis drunkenly berates Freehauf for dwelling on the past and not moving on, we recognize both the hypocrisy of her comment—after all, she is trying to win her old boyfriend back—but also the truth. For healing and wholeness, we have to forgive and forget.

The fact that the gorgeous Charlize Theron and the pudgy Patton Oswalt sleep together at one point exemplifies the film’s underlying humanity and compassion. What could have easily been a stupid, fake, or plain weird sex scene instead comes across as human, gently awkward, and a little sweet. The scene also highlights the film’s other main accomplishment: it feels real.

I had the pleasure to see this film well before its December release thanks to a free, secret screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, hosted by George Stroumboulopoulos. Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody were there to answer questions after the movie.

8 out of 10

Young Adult (USA, 2011)

Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Diablo Cody; starring Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, and Patrick Wilson.