Film Review – Young Adult

Beauty’s a beast as Charlize Theron turns bitchiness into an art

Young Adult opens with the sound of sobbing, though it certainly ain’t the boohooing of hard-faced hack Mavis Gary. It’s coming from a reality show, and it’s in front of such shit that Mavis (Charlize Theron, above and below) snoozes away her life.

As she inadvertently reveals to the object of her affection’s wife, she’s a woman stuck in neutral – a woman who, if the wind changed, is likely to be left wearing a sizable sneer and who confesses with petulant pity, “It’s really difficult for me to be happy”. Aw, diddums.

This is the latest from screenwriter Diablo Cody (Jennifer’s Body) and director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), who last collaborated on the sassy but sweet Juno. Young Adult marks a confident shift from nice to nasty, as Mavis (let’s make no bones about it) is a bitch. She’s an all-out, top-to-toe, scorn-spouting, magnificent bitch – brazen, judgemental and socially-retarded, both ample beauty and oodles of beast.

Seen sucking Diet Coke greedily from a family-sized bottle, Mavis lives her life either irritably drunk or cantankerously hung-over, her soulless career as a teen fiction ghost-writer is faltering and her failed marriage is best remembered for the reception’s knockout tiramisu.

With her perfectly poisonous personality nowt but a hindrance, “psychotic prom queen” Mavis depends entirely on her robust good looks; at 37 her face is still shotgun powerful, and it’s a weapon she shamelessly hopes will help snatch her a man.

Prompted perversely by a round-robin email announcing the birth of an ex’s son, Mavis returns to her home-town of Mercury to claim said ex, the naffly-monikered and goonish Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who is unashamedly a small-town personality. Buddy, as well as being a new dad, is happily married to a darling special needs teacher, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), yet Mavis – through a prism of her own misery – see’s him as a hostage, trapped in a marriage, trapped in a town.

Those who haven’t seen her multi-episode guest appearance as “Mentally Retarded Female”, Rita, in Arrested Development would be forgiven for thinking that Theron has yet to really prove her comic chops. In Young Adult her development is arrested again, though this time she’s at least past puberty and has mentally edged her way into her teens.

Mavis’s misadventures are amusingly punctuated by the creation of her last entry in her ghost-written opus, the Waverley Prep series. It serves as an outlet for her delusions and fantasies and is a way of reliving what she sees misguidedly as her glory years (years in which she in fact ignored or tormented countless innocent peers). It’s the most obvious manifestation of her stunted maturity.

In the process of her attempted seduction and hijack, this young adult forges a bond with the contrastingly diminutive and similarly embittered Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, pictured above, making for a fabulous foil), whose beating by jocks (an attempted hate crime – they’d assumed he was gay) has left him crippled and unshakably resentful.

Integral to Mavis’s unlikely appeal is that she’s really quite brilliantly played by Theron. She’s a fabulously vile creation and chaotically entertaining; there’s something exhilarating about how little she cares and – when she puts herself unwittingly out there to be savaged and humiliated – it’s hard not to feel pity for someone so desperately unaware.

Theron turns her seasoned model’s pout into a permanent look of disdain and gloriously sends herself up in the process. She’s someone who has made an estimable career out of proving herself much more than a pretty face. However, in this honourable attempt to be taken seriously, Theron may have ended up looking just a little humourless. And so Young Adult sets the record straight with style.

Like Mavis, the film flails once she’s made the inevitable declaration to Buddy – a squirmtastic scene which involves a surprisingly emotional sucker punch. There are (extremely) fleeting moments of sympathy for, and glimpses of, the humanity in Mavis, though, to its credit, the film remains uncompromising in its denouement.

Young Adult lacks some swagger and works best if thought of as a vehicle for terrific performances from Theron and Oswalt. It does however have a tidy line in satirising both small-towns and the big city types who automatically deride the ‘losers’ who stay put, no matter how empty their own lives might be. It’s not a vintage black comedy I’m afraid – but a smattering of killer quips, some snappily delivered home truths and Mavis and Matt’s boozy shenanigans make for devilishly good fun.

  • Young Adult is released on Friday 3rd February

Watch the trailer for Young Adult

About emmasimmonds

Emma is a film and TV critic whose work has appeared in Time Out, Little White Lies, The Spectator and Popmatters, amongst many others. She is also a contributor to the London and New York volumes of the World Film Locations book series.
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