It’s not hard to image that something similar to the end of this story happened twenty years before we ever get to meet young adult author Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron). In a way, that is an uncanny insight into the mind and attitudes and history of a very disturbed and very broken human being. At the same time, however, it also negates and belittles whatever possible catharsis or even value we as an audience could find from the narrative.
This is a complicated idea. There is some value to this story and some courageous storytelling on display as it unspools. After all, it takes a lot of guts to create a narrative wherein a character not only learns nothing, but actually becomes more entrenched in their wrongheaded ways. The accepted arc of a story like this would be for the protagonist to learn something when all is said and done, not to continue down the same misguided path. Going against this requires not only a deft touch in direction, but also in writing and acting.
The weird thing is, Young Adult has very strong artists working in those categories, and yet it still somehow fails to create the cohesive narrative vision necessary to really sell its story. As I watched, I couldn’t help but feel as though production on this film came to pass too quickly. I felt as though another pass in either writing or conceptualization could habe done wonders for it.
Let’s begin with the only two purely unassailable pieces of this complicated narrative mechanism. Charlize Theron turns in a performance here that is pretty much flawless. She plays a 37-year-old former high school queen bee who returns to her hometown to try to win back her now married-with-child old flame. This is a broken character, and Theron makes her completely believable. Some of her actions are intense, insane, born purely from a place of almost unimaginable narcissism. Theron’s challenge was to make a character who we didn’t connect with, but whose actions never seemed out of character to her – and she succeeded. The depths of Gary’s madness are never found, and she never strays too far from the central thread of her disturbed, inflated sense of self.
Meeting her note for note is Paton Oswalt as Matt Freehauf, the high school loser who walks with a crutch because he was beaten by the type of boys that Gary used to pal around with when she was alpha-dog at the school. In one of the more wryly funny turns the story takes, Freehauf’s beating was a national story, classified as a hate crime, until everyone found out that he wasn’t gay. The crime and his pain remained, but no one cared as much. It’s an interesting commentary on the fleeting and faustian nature of fame as well as the hypocrisy of giving certain crime greater preference in terms of empathy. Sadly, it doesn’t go much of anywhere interesting. He becomes her confidante, but even this relationship is so shallow that it never lifts off.
Director Jason Reitman could be partially to blame here. His cinematic star has been falling with me since Thank You For Smoking. While I found that film to be biting, satirically astute, and boundlessly energetic, I’ve felt that just about everything since then has been less than A-grade. He’s never made an out-and-out bad film, but he’s also never found a way to recapture that same anarchic energy again. Young Adult seemed like his chance at redemption, and yet it fell far short of that goal, instead saddling him with a story that played like the love child of Up in the Air and Juno. He is able to find the weirdly funny, smaller moments in life (a young hotel receptionist croaking out what she writes) and yet loses handle on the narrative before him. There is something about this woman and her situation that should be either much more dramatic or funny than it is, yet the jokes and drama end up un-extracted, purely potential rather than kinetic.
And of course a lot of this is the fault of Diablo Cody, the scribe. Between this and Juno she proves herself adept at creating stories with a lot of potential for fun. However, she still winds up shooting herself in the foot more often than not. It is as though she knows the beats she must hit and the actions she must take to catch and audience off-guard, but still doesn’t know how to populate the points in between. Luckily, she does do more character work here than usual, and reined in her usual bent toward quirky language. Still, the situation is set up without ever being exploited, and as such the ride toward the climax is less than the engaging journey it should have been.
As I said, though, there is courage in Young Adult‘s ending. I just wish that the groundwork for it had been set up both more thoroughly and with more subtlety. It feels as though everyone was so eager to tell the pieces of this story that they failed to think about whether they’d earned them.
That is a problem that unfortunately cripples an otherwise interesting and worthy tale. All the expert acting and directorial aptitude are pointless when landed on top of a framework that could never support them. So it is that Young Adult must stand as an interesting idea given a pretty good effort, yet falling far short of its potential.