February 24, 2012

Film review: YOUNG ADULT

Since the release of Juno and her subsequent Oscar win, writer Diablo Cody has suffered something of a backlash. It started during the lead-up to the Oscars and reached its height come the release of Jennifer's Body. There was a slight whiff of misogyny about some of the criticism and people got rather in a lather about her stylised dialogue. These people somehow missed the point. And also, it's a sad truth that Hollywood is sorely lacking in female writers, strong & interesting female characters and intelligent & non-condescending femaleness in general.

Young Adult, her third feature-length film as writer, casts its gaze on the undeveloped female after a plethora of man-child films released. Charlize Theron is Mavis Gary, a ghost-writer for a once-popular Young Adult series of fiction. She lives her life in her self-contained apartment, falling asleep to trashy reality-TV shows and waking up hung-over, sucking down bottles of Diet Coke. She's a bit of an train-wreck of a person still stuck in adolescence. Unlike the often charmingly goofy man-children, Mavis is a character with no redeeming features. None; s
he has little interest in other people past using them for whatever she wants. She doesn't even bother with tossing them aside when she's done with them, instead just leaving them as she continues on her chaotic way. Mavis is the villain of the piece and I have to applaud the bravery of Cody, Theron and director Jason Reitman for making the character so unapologetically disastrous. 

After receiving an email from her high-school ex's wife celebrating the birth of their first child, Mavis decides she must "save" her poor ex Buddy (Patrick Wilson) from the unimaginable horrors of child-rearing and small-town life. And so, for the first time since she left, Mavis returns to her hometown and her old stomping grounds. And it is there, in one of the old bars she used to frequent, that she bumps into Patton Oswalt's Matt Freehauf. 

While Mavis is something of an emotional cripple, Matt is a physical one. He was beaten brutally, to near death by a group of jocks in high-school because they (mistakenly) believed he was gay. Matt walks with the help of a cane, brews his own whisky and cobbles together his own action-figures from pre-existing ones. He's bitter about his lot in life but maintains a more cheerful front. He acts as the (largely unheard) voice of reason for Mavis and is, intentionally, cast in the "asexual high-school sidekick" role. There's a lot of subtle work from Oswalt in building this character, keeping most of the pain just below the surface. 

This is a Diablo Cody film through and through; the stamp of authorship is in every character, every situation, every exchange and it is scathing and hilarious. Cody has a continuing fascination with high-school and the influence it casts over so many American's lives. The comedy is often black as tar, sparing few in the process and Mavis least of all. Everyone Mavis meets at home has moved on with their lives while she, who physically escaped, cannot bring herself to escape from her past. There is some justification given to her arrested development late in the film but it is far from redeeming. And Mavis continues on as per usual in any case. Come the end, Mavis is an unrepentant and unchanged character, once again leaving her home-town for Minneapolis.

Theron utterly owns the role of Mavis. Though the character is nothing short of a horrible, self-absorbed person (often forgetting her fluffy handbag-dog), you cannot help but watch Theron embody this characters and bring you along for her ride. She had a fairly normal, balanced upbringing and the sorry state of her life is entirely down to her own poor choices; from her failed marriage to her return home. Wilson seems to have the market cornered on the slightly emasculated modern male and here invests Buddy with a happy, down-to-earth sort of charm. Buddy is a man who has no grand ambitions but is pleasingly happy with his life as it is - which makes Mavis' plan all the more devious and destructive. 

Young Adult is brave, acerbic, hilarious, intelligent and engaging. It's more than refreshing, it's a slap to the face to wake you up. 

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