Young Adult, Jason Reitman’s 2011 directorial effort, is one of those comedies that isn’t exactly a comedy. Sure, there are laughs to be had, but they’re very uncomfortable laughs, forced out as our heroine Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) plunges her way deeper into her own delusions. The unlovely term for this sort of humor is “cringe comedy,” and while I’m not the biggest fan of it, I find it can be surprisingly effective once the jokes stop and the inner sadness of the situation is laid bare.
Back in the ’90s, Mavis was the homecoming queen of Mercury, Minnesota. She had it all: the looks, the popularity, the boyfriend, the “best hair” award. By the time the movie starts in the present day, though, Mavis is single, pushing 40, and cooped up in a one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis. Her day job is ghost-writing the Waverly Prep books, a series of young-adult novels that resembles the Sweet Valley High series in a very non-legally-actionable way. One day, while struggling with a block, Mavis receives an mass email invite from her old high school sweetheart Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) to his new daughter’s naming ceremony. After pondering the invite, Mavis concocts a plan: she will return to Mercury, seduce Buddy, and spirit him away from his family and back to Minneapolis.
It’s an awful plan, but then again Mavis isn’t a very good person. Theron plays her as a overgrown queen bee, down to still using “gross” and Valley-Girl-accented “oh my Gods” in everyday speech. She deals with the majority of humanity with a sort of poker-faced contempt, occasionally stooping to a cutting remark for someone who really displeases her. Sex for her is a utilitarian transaction with absolutely no emotional involvement with the other person. (Hardly unusual, but Mavis takes it to extremes: she departs for Mercury with the previous night’s conquest still asleep in her bed, with no idea she’s gone for the weekend.) The only other thing she has in her life is her little purse dog, and she mistreats the poor animal in every scene it appears. There’s also a great deal of vanity to Mavis: there are numerous montages devoted to her shopping for clothes, getting manicures and pedicures, and spending an inordinate amount of time primping in the mirror.
And yet that is not all there is to Mavis. I’ve found that one of the best things to do to get an audience to sympathize with an off-putting or even malevolent protagonist is give them some vulnerability, some hint of their inner being. Right from the first scene, the film makes it very clear that something has gone seriously wrong in Mavis’ life. She spends a lot of the movie by herself, drifting from apartment to car to hotel room without leaving a ripple. When she arranges her first get-together with Buddy in Mercury, she gets herself ready, then sits on her hotel bed and waits out the clock. She spends the entire film with a permanent buzz on, and her normal morning ritual is to slide out of bed hung over and chug a liter of Diet Coke for breakfast. Buddy’s wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) discusses her job of teaching autistic children how to read emotions, Mavis asks matter-of-factly how they recognize people who are “blank,” who don’t feel emotions.
Young Adult also prevents Mavis from suffocating the film with another old classmate of Mavis, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). Matt is that contemporary stock figure of the geeky man-child who never grew up, but Oswalt plays him with a low-key frustration tempered with a rueful self-awareness. Back in high school, Matt was set upon by two jocks, who broke his legs and mutilated his genitals. At the time, everyone thought the attack was motivated by homophobia, a fact that was particularly hard on Matt, especially considering that he wasn’t gay. Matt and Mavis traveled in separate worlds in high school, but he’s the only person she bonds with during her return. He does his damnedest to pierce her delusions, but in the end the only person Mavis listens to is Mavis.
So what is going on with Mavis? Part of the issue is the fact that she is very much a woman-child. She spends most of the movie talking and acting like a high schooler, and her beauty regimens make it painfully clear that she is a woman that gets by on her looks. However, one of the themes running through the movie is that Mavis is rapidly approaching the age when that approach is no longer viable. Her regimens take up so much time because they are her attempts to spackle over twenty years of age and hard living. Even her writing is an attempt to keep the present at bay. Mavis uses Waverly Prep a self-insertion fantasy, as a place where a miniature Mavis can be sixteen forever. Unfortunately, due to competition from the Twilights and the Gossip Girls, Waverly Prep is being wound up by the publisher, and Mavis’ final assignment is to write the last book in the series. (Incidentally, in the real world, Sweet Valley High ended in 2007.)
(As an aside, I’ve been reading Alone! Alone!, Rosemary Dinnage’s collection of essays discussing women writers grappling with loneliness. One of the essays in the collection discussed the British children’s authors Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton. In Dinnage’s opinion, both women wrote for the same reason as Mavis: to create consolatory fantasy worlds to replace their own troubled childhoods.)
However, there is more than narcissism at play, and all is finally revealed at the naming ceremony. It goes about as you would expect; Mavis confesses her feelings to Buddy, Buddy rightfully tells her no, and Mavis finally breaks down. In the course of her tirade against Beth, she reveals a particularly salient fact: Buddy got her pregnant when she was 20, and while she was planning on keeping the baby, a miscarriage at sixteen weeks made the whole thing moot. It’s a very interesting revelation for a few reasons. First of all, it gives a rationale for all of Mavis’ actions in the movie, explaining why she’s trying to resurrect a relationship that ended decades ago. Rather more interesting, the revelation flips the script. While the characters in Mercury came across as far more sympathetic than the erratic Mavis, her confession throws them all into question. Did Buddy not tell his wife what happened in high school? If he did, why on God’s green earth would she think that inviting Mavis to an infant’s naming ceremony would be a good idea? Between this and the attack on Matt, it’s reasonable to imagine Mercury as a town full of people who are “nice,” but who tend to deal with tragedies by shuffling the afflicted off to the side and only pay attention to them when it is convenient. Mavis’ own parents certainly fit that pattern: they are upset that she didn’t let them know she was in town, but when she admits that she is an alcoholic, they brush her off with a laugh. They also keep her childhood room preserved like a museum installation, which has its own implications.
Raw and bleeding, Mavis turns to Matt, and the two share a genuinely tender moment. The fantasy of nerd making out with cheerleader gives way to two damaged unhappy people, each convinced they are unlovable, comforting each other in the night. But day comes, and the movie takes another turn. The final conversation of the movie is in Matt’s family kitchen, between Mavis and Matt’s sister Sandra (Colette Wolfe), another sad soul who never grew up. When Mavis confesses that she needs to change her life, Sandra, still worshipping the popular girls, tells Mavis that she’s better than everyone in Mercury, and that everyone envies her life. After a while, Mavis agrees, then departs Mercury, never to return. It’s a very ambiguous ending, to be sure: on the surface, it seems like Mavis learned nothing from her experiences, and with her narcissistic defenses reassembled by Sandra, she is going to leave the movie as the same person she was in the beginning. However, while a part of that is true, it doesn’t feel like the whole story. While a lot of Mavis’ problems are self inflicted (and, as Matt notes, pre-date her miscarriage), in the end it cannot be denied that, in her hour of need, Buddy, her parents, and all of Mercury failed Mavis. Mavis latched onto her high school days as the last time she was truly happy, and the question of Buddy and her child became the great what-if of her life, the better alternative that circled her. If nothing else, her trip to Mercury showed that, in all likelihood, she would not have enjoyed either adult life in Mercury or the demands of motherhood. Her trip back home freed her of her old fantasy, but as for what comes next, even Mavis cannot say.
Still, she can take solace in one thing: Buddy and his family are going to get the shit haunted out of them.