Review: ‘Young Adult’

'I cannot recommend it with a good conscience.'

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

There are some who might call Young Adult, the latest feature from Juno collaborators Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, a daring film. It’s centered on a sadistic train wreck of a protagonist who seeks to destroy the lives of others in order to justify her own life decisions, whose only character arc involves feeling better about her decision to do so. If this were an early Neil LaBute film, perhaps I would agree, since that particular brand of sociopathic storytelling came from a clinical storyteller, who sought not to judge his characters’ behavior but instead merely depict it, and allow the audience to come to their own conclusions. But Young Adult wallows in its protagonist’s pain so much, and comes to such trite conclusions about her nature, that I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film is merely indulgent. It defies convention only as a last minute switcheroo, and feels remarkably inconsequential as a result. It’s neither objective enough to play as elaborate ruse, nor empathetic enough to stand on its own as a dark character study. I cannot recommend it with a good conscience.

Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a former prom queen turned minor hometown celebrity, who left for the big city – Minneapolis – and became a ghost writer for a popular series of “young adult” books along the lines of Sweet Valley High. But despite her “success,” she’s a miserable alcoholic with no personal ties to speak of. Her already bleak world is further sullied when her high school beau, Buddy, played by Patrick Wilson, e-mail bombs an announcement that he is a new father. Under the guise of pitying his suburban shackles, Mavis treks back home to intentionally wreck Buddy’s marriage and tear him away from his newborn so he can join her in an urban, “superior” lifestyle.

Reitman tells the story of Young Adult in a particularly bleak visual style, full of weakened colors and specifically subdued camera angles, which give the film the appearance of dramatic heft. It’s a clever disguise. Charlize Theron gives an excellent performance but the rest of the film can’t seem to find the right angle through which to view her experiences. Sometimes Mavis is a sad, tortured soul, and we want to sympathize with her plight. But these moments contrast badly with her coping mechanism, selfishly trying to destroy Buddy’s marriage, and her clearly deluded justifications for her own behavior. The snippets of her latest teen novel we hear in voice-over are clearly the voice of degenerative madness, as her ego struggles to defend her own perceived greatness over the perceived failures of those she left behind, who settled for simple, family-oriented pleasures.

On paper, that’s a compelling psychological struggle, but it’s all undone by a last-minute revelation: that her insecurity and depression stems from a single defining moment that’s as simplistic as it is arguably sexist. Much like another recent cinematic attempt to justify non-conventional female behavior, namely Natalie Portman’s polyamory in No Strings Attached, it all boils down to a woman who is lesser for not having a traditional female role in society, which doesn’t seem like much of a message. I’ve heard it argued that the previous Reitman/Cody effort, Juno, adds up to a similarly staunch, conservative value judgment, but at the very least Juno buried it under an avalanche of twee likability. Young Adult’s pensive affectations boost its troublesome themes right to the surface. The result is unpleasant.

In the end Young Adult tries to deny this ugly message by telling Mavis that she was perfectly okay the way she was; which might be acceptable, if at the very least her cruelty had abated even slightly by the end of the film. But her last mean-spirited, condescending exchange with a rather sad character indicates otherwise. The message the filmmakers tried to subvert ends up reaffirmed: she’s a broken human being for a very conventional reason, and only conning herself into thinking otherwise. Adding insult to injury, the last minute refusal to give Mavis a hint of personal growth negates the very existence of Patton Oswalt’s character, who was splendidly acted (if a little too perfect for Mavis’s needs), but ultimately turns out to be one sad Jiminy Cricket (who really wants to f**k Pinocchio) whose reasoned, conscientious objections to the hero’s self-destructive tendencies are completely written off by the film’s end.

I suspect Young Adult was made with the best intentions, but it doesn’t seem to have been made very well. The message comes across as disturbingly conformist, if indeed it even has one. If I’m reading too much into a mere character study, then I am forced to throw up my hands and say that the character isn’t likable enough to spend an hour and a half my time with. That it is splendidly acted and occasionally rather funny is damning with moderate praise, since both complimentary aspects are in service of a narrative which amounts to an unremarkable, albeit atypically melodramatic episode of Seinfeld that lacks the wisdom to run only 22 minutes long.