Written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman (their second collaboration after 2007’s Oscar winning “Juno”), “Young Adult” (2011) tells the story of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a divorced, lonesome author in her mid-30s, who ghost-writes for a series of young adult books titled Waverly Prep. The series is about to be cancelled and the publisher is hounding her to finish the final book. Mavis has her little dog Dolce for company in her apartment in “Mini Apple” Minneapolis. Mavis seems to have run out of ideas (her books aren’t selling well these days either, as is clear from one later scene). She binge drinks, goes out on not-so-exciting dates and tries to prepare the draft for her novel. A chance email sent out by Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), an old school-mate, carrying a picture of her new-born baby, who happens to be from her marriage to Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), Mavis’ ex-boyfriend from high school days, suddenly shakes her up from this mundane scheme of things. Initially deeming it to be a “slap in the face”, she then believes that it’s a sign that she and Buddy were meant to be together. She travels to her hometown Mercury, with the sole intention of catching up with Buddy, and if possible, rekindling her long lost romance!
Sounds pretty lame so far right? Maybe so, but this lighthearted drama glides along with a steady progression with some wonderfully written scenes, well-acted at that, and humour derived from quite natural situations.
A very trivial scene, like the receptionist at an inn registering Mavis’ name while checking her in, saying her name out loud in a croaky voice, and the expression on Mavis’ face as she does that, makes for a genuinely funny moment! Ditto for the straight-faced denial of Mavis when asked if she has a dog in the bag despite it visibly shaking and Dolce’s stifled yelping from inside it, clearly audible! And later upon learning that pets are indeed allowed, still maintaining that she does have a dog, but in the vehicle! The film is rife with such subtle humour. At times we get all out comical situations, and at other times, we get light moments that make us chuckle and at the same time evoke sympathy for the person at the center of it!
“Young Adult” refrains from over-usage of excessively dramatic moments. There are, maybe, only a couple of those, including one scene when Mavis gets drunk and creates a scene at Buddy’s baby’s naming ceremony. The lack of excessive drama works in the film’s favour. It is in the rather restrained scenes that the real heart of the film lies. Like the instance when Mavis forms a strange bond with fat boy Matt (Patton Oswalt), a nobody, an old schoolmate of Mavis that she fails to recognize instantly. As much as she cannot stand Matt and rebuffs him when she wants to be alone with Buddy when they finally make contact, she finds that he is the only listener she has, and visits him from time to time, gets drunk on the Bourbon he distills in his own garage and continues talking to him. Matt has a tragedy of his own; he’s been a victim of bullying and has been physically assaulted during high school days, leaving him slightly crippled for life. He has always been in awe of Mavis and of course, welcomes her with open arms when she reaches out to him. In a way this also hints at Mavis’ selfishness.
A lack of maturity and tolerance level is seen on Mavis’ part, later in a scene when her mother runs into her and brings her home. A discussion at the table hints that Mavis’ ex-husband was actually a nice guy. Maybe it is Mavis that acted irresponsibly and led to the end of her marriage. She later calls her parents “horrible” and exclaims that she's been through a lot! Mavis is obviously not a very likeable person, yet something about her makes the audiences connect with her. All this and her inability to move on from her high school romance with Buddy makes it clear that Mavis is stuck in a time warp. Despite her age, she is still an adolescent at heart. And hence the title!
The tiny bits, like an awkward conversation with Beth in which Mavis reveals certain intimate details of Buddy when they went around in high school; the parts in which Mavis picks up lines from random conversations between gossiping girls passing by, that help her device catchphrases for her novel; the scene during the gig, at which Beth is the drummer, and Mavis tries to get close to Buddy, or that conversation of Mavis with Sandra (Collette Wolfe) that ends on a bitingly funny note are further testimony to some fine writing on Diablo Cody’s part.
But what adds the depth to all this well thought out writing and direction, is the amazingly flawless performance of Charlize Theron. It is simply awesome to watch the super talented lady at work here. She understands Mavis extremely well and delivers a splendid performance, with her range of expressions and mannerisms befitting a troubled mind such as Mavis’! It is an extraordinary performance that sadly got overlooked by the Academy while putting together the nominees in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category.
A close second in the acting department is of course, Patton Oswalt. He quite comfortably slips into Matt’s shoes and delivers a solid performance with an ease that is commendable.
“Young Adult” is a welcome relief from other similar films that touch upon such subjects and usually become easy preys to clichés and unwarranted exaggerations, marred by feeble-minded writing in the name of comedy. What we get here instead, is quite a refined piece of work, a fine character study laced with the right dose of dark humour; one, that might seem wafer-thin when it comes to its premise but manages to entertain, thanks to the crisp, clever writing, naturalistic characterization, brilliant acting and a modest length of 90 minutes that just breezes by.