Saturday, December 17, 2011

Young Adult

Jason Reitman may have directed Young Adult, but this riveting, scathing chamber piece should of course be discussed with the possessive "Diablo Cody's" in mind. If ever a film deserved to be associated with its writer then it's the latest effort by the Oscar-winning author of Juno. Young Adult distorts and rearranges any ideas you may have had about Cody and her work and replaces them with something complicated and entirely new. The small Minnesota town where most of Young Adult takes place might be one town over from the place where Juno grew up; there are no roving cross-country teams. here Reitman and Cody take care to pick out the fast food restaurants, big box stores, and interchangeable sports bars. When Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) returns from Minneapolis for the first time in years she suggests meeting old boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) at a familar dive bar, but time and suburban sprawl have done their work and the two wind up reuniting in a place that looks like a Buffalo Wild Wings knockoff. We know Mavis has (at least on the surface) left her hometown behind because when she's offered popcorn shrimp in a restaurant on her return it almost works as a laugh line.

Mavis, the ghost writer of a series of young adult novels that is being discontinued, has returned home after learning of the birth of a child to Buddy and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser). Charlize Theron has never been afraid to run away from her beauty on screen, and knowing she has a good role here she embraces all of Mavis's flaws. A divorced, unhappy, alcoholic mess, Mavis views a reconnection with Buddy as the key to finally living the life she thought she'd have after high school. Finding that life at home consists of civic responsibility and a lot of dull evenings, Mavis makes an unlikely friend in former high school classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). Matt is disabled after a high school beating, and the pairing of a physically impaired man with a woman so obviously wounded on the inside feels a bit neat at first. Oswalt and Theron make such fine companions though that it doesn't matter; Young Adult is at one level about what happens when the outlets for our pain stop working. Cody is unsparing in the way she paints small town life as the place where all our disappointments are magnified, and she nails the details; this is the kind of town where Mavis's mother (Jill Eikenberry) would keep up a picture of Mavis and her ex-husband.

There's a deep and abiding anger in Young Adult that we haven't seen from Diablo Cody before, and it will make you think again about your expectations of the rest of her career. The lacerating climax of Young Adult feels deeply personal, as though Cody were tapping into a creative source that's closer to the bone than ever before. Yet just when we think Mavis has turned a corner Cody pulls a switch yet again, in a quiet conversation that turns Young Adult into a sarcastic shout-out to every American work of art about small-town life. It's hard to get more specific without spoiling the plot, but this feels like a movie Cody had to get out of her system. She's fortunate in her collaborators, from Reitman (who pretty much stays out of the way) to Oswalt and a brave Charlize Theron. When Mavis drives back to Minneapolis at the end of Young Adult it's more than the end to the movie. Young Adult feels like the way that Diablo Cody has chosen to say goodbye to all that.

No comments: