Mavis Gary is a woman who lives in the past. A once fabulously popular and pretty high school student, things haven’t quite turned out the way she wanted. Now divorced and lonely, she impulsively chooses to revisit an old flame from high school after receiving a birth announcement from him. Yes her ex-boyfriend is now (ostensibly happily) married and expecting the arrival of his first child. But those are mere formalities to Mavis Gary who believes with every fiber of her being that he is in actuality, unhappy, trapped in a prison of a marriage with a wife and baby child he doesn’t want. She decides to return to her hometown and win him back.
Young Adult is an extraordinary study of a 37 year old woman who is at first glance, both beautiful and a published author. But those superficialities belie a much more depressing picture. The alcohol-dependent author writes fiction for adolescents – literature classified as “young adult”. The title could very well reference her occupation as well as her stunted maturation level. She’s the author – a ghostwriter really – of a young adult books series called “Waverly Prep”. As the plot unfolds, Mavis is simultaneously writing the last book of the Waverly Prep series which is no longer popular. As her own journey plays out, she concurrently writes for her protagonist, Kendall, which is clearly an extension of her own wish fulfillment. The disparity between what is happening in her own real life and the girl-power fantasy that she writes about, brilliantly contrasts her two worlds: reality and fiction.
Charlize Theron is marvelous. Rarely have I witnessed an individual so physically attractive on the surface and so extremely ugly within. Mavis behaves solely for herself. Caught up in shallow measures of success, she cannot comprehend that anyone could be content living in the insignificant, nowhere town she was originally from. The character is fascinating and utterly believable as a genuine person, despite her questionable and ridiculous behavior. Complementing her artless journey is a former classmate with whom she reunites – Matt Freehauf – played by Patton Oswalt in a stunning performance. Heavyset and socially awkward Matt Freehauf wasn’t friends with Mavis Gary when they were in high school together. Yet they inadvertently meet again and form an unexpected bond. You might have to go back to Ernest Borgnine in Marty to find a more heartbreaking and honest portrayal of an unmarried man child.
Young Adult is a mesmerizing no-holds barred expose of a woman dissatisfied with life and her bizarre determination to make things right. Mavis Gary is a woman you won’t soon forget. She’s bold but mentally confused. Despite her visible beauty, her personality is disgusting and Charlize Theron deserves kudos for her brazen work here. The story goes places that are downright embarrassing. In fact there are scenes in Young Adult that are so cringe inducing, I couldn’t even look at the screen. This is not a cheerful film. In fact it’s downright bleak bordering on harsh. Screenwriter Diablo Cody was supposedly inspired when reporters repeatedly pointed out her own fixation with adolescent subjects. She obviously has a certain accord with this popular girl who never quite left high school. Cody’s sympathy infuses her creation with a believability that keeps the character from ever being a caricature, although Mavis’ narcissism can be a bit ridiculous at times. Mavis Gary is a contemptible human being, but one that also deserves our pity. The character study is a raw examination of a life unfulfilled. Its captivating ugliness is painfully splendid.