Young Adult has a double meaning: The main character, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), is the author (not a writer!) of young adult novels. She wakes up by drinking a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola, then works in an on-again off-again way on her latest novel while ignoring deadline calls from her publisher. But she’s also someone who has never matured beyond her self-absorbed teen years. Her apartment looks like a teenager’s room, and she hasn’t gotten beyond her prom queen/screw the guys in the back of the school attitude.
Her career and her immature life collide when she receives a baby announcement from her high school sweetheart and his wife. She somehow assumes she can live like the teen heroine of one of her novels and just swoop back into the small town of her youth and pluck her ex-boyfriend out of there. When fellow grad Matt (Patton Oswalt) points out the ex is married and has a baby, Mavis shrugs it off by saying, “We all have baggage.”
But yes, her ex-boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) is obviously a good husband and a good father. And his wife is nice to Mavis. In fact, almost everyone in the small town is nice to her or impressed by her accomplishments. Mavis is actually only moderately successful—she lives in Minneapolis, not New York or Los Angeles, and she is essentially a ghost writer for the famous author who started the young adult series she writes for. But in her mind, she is an exalted giant compared to these nothing people in this small town. Soon, Buddy will realize she’s here to rescue him, and he’ll abandon his wife and child for her.
Young Adult is an uncompromising sort of comedy. Don’t look for any cathartic scene to resolve Mavis’ insecurities. In fact, the more she talks about her feelings, the more self-centered she gets. She transforms every friendly gesture from Buddy into an absurdist sign that her romantic flight of fancy is working. It’s as fascinating as a car skidding into a wreck, a car driven by that prom queen you always hated.
Okay, raise your hand if you recognize yourself in this movie. Did I say “yourself”? I meant your roommate, or someone whose blog you like. The person who never grew up, and who looks back to high school for his/her glory days is a painful reality. These people are blights on our society, dried-up leaves that clog our parties, raging waves that dash against their peers who have grown up and moved on. But they sure write interesting novels.
They try hard to make Charlize Theron look dowdy in some scenes, moping around in gray sweats or baggy blue jeans, but you can still see what an impressive woman she is. And she is completely believable as the moderately successful person consumed not so much with her importance, but just with herself. Every dead look of hers at the accomplishments of others and every sneer tossed at her ex-boyfriend’s wife defines her as the self-absorbed. Everyone else provides fair to good performances, but Theron is the one who carries the movie on her ivory shoulders.
Young Adult is not for everyone. It’s not a hilarious comedy; the audience alternates between making disgusted sounds and laughing at the oh-no-she-didn’t-say-that lines. But I think it would have a wider appeal if it didn’t have the admirably literary title. If it had been called The Anti-Wife, more women would “get” it and want to see it. So that last sentence shows I can already spin things in a Hollywood way.
P.S. For me, the movie contained some horror elements. No, the genre is not horror, and the movie is very mainstream. But I’ve never seen pedicures and manicures close up before. The horror.