Guys like me are born loving women like you,” says Patton Oswalt’s Matt Freehauf, the portly sci-fi geek and former classmate of Charlize Theron’s former prom queen-turned-train wreck Mavis Gary. Although that line is meant to comfort Mavis at a particularly vulnerable moment, it’s delivered with pitch-perfect resignation – life would be much easier for guys like him if they weren’t born that way.
In a sense, that statement also explains my adoration for Young Adult, the second film from the writer-director team of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman after the wonderful Juno. I tend to subscribe to Hollywood’s unspoken Golden Rule of moviemaking that says a main character must be redeemed – by love, valor or at least acknowledgement of their flaws – by film’s end. After all, who wants to spend two hours with an unlikable antihero who doesn’t come out better and wiser? (Greenberg, for example, was one of my least favorite films of the last decade for that reason.)
And yet Young Adult, which follows Mavis on a mission to win back her (now married with a newborn) high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson, whose incredulity at his long-ago flame is indispensable), cares deeply for its comically pathetic heroine and Oswalt’s limping conscience by her side. It’s hard not to love Mavis for her numerous flaws (and, let’s face it, heart-stopping loveliness). She considers herself lucky to have escaped the rural mediocrity of her hometown – now overrun with mid-level clothing stores and KenTacoHuts – and have made a decent living in the “big city” (Minneapolis, not New York) ghostwriting YA fiction for a series that, unbeknownst to her, has reached the end of its popularity.
One day, she gets an email blast from Slade’s family with a photo of their adorable new baby and something just snaps. She packs up her Mini Coop, pops in a worn-down Teenage Fanclub cassette and heads home to reclaim her glory, or, failing that, get plastered and hit rock bottom. (She seems to know it’ll likely be the latter and is mostly OK with that.)
In her stupor, she meets Matt, whom she recognizes only from news reports from long ago when he was beat within an inch of his life by their school’s jocks for being gay. His time in the spotlight faded, he says, when they learned he was not, in fact, gay. He is, however, a decent guy, so when he learns of Mavis’ nefarious plan, he feels compelled to stay by her side and try to talk her out of it.
What unfolds from there is a remarkably honest film built around Theron’s endlessly complicated performance. Mavis is beautiful without trying and she knows it – Theron and Reitman’s nudges at middlebrow culture’s acceptance of that kind of elegant slumming doesn’t even feel condescending, and I’m not sure how they pulled that off. We can even discern when she’s aware of her irrationality and when she’s genuinely ignorant and/or incapacitated by it, and Theron’s subtle toggling between the two is a marvel to watch.
Young Adult is as much a triumph for its makers as for its star. Reitman and Cody have both grown leaps and bounds since Juno. Gone are Cody’s cutesy turns of phrase and Reitman’s faux-everyman moralizing that peaked with his last outing, Up in the Air. This is a film shot through with observational clarity, lived-in performances and touching nuances. Mavis would despise it.