Some film series don’t need colored tights and special effects. Some focus on characters and motifs. François Truffaut directed five films about Antoine Doinel and the movies. Roman Polanski made three about apartments, and Baz Luhrmann made his Red Curtain Trilogy. Now, Jason Reitman has completed his “Growing Up Trilogy.”
Beginning with Juno, Reitman’s first collaboration with screenwriter Diablo Cody, and followed by Up in the Air, Reitman’s movies look at “growing up” as process, usually unending. One could go so far as to say grownups don’t exist in Reitman’s world (with the exception of J.K. Simmons). This point is made rather aggressively in Young Adult, also written by Cody, and by far Reitman’s most grownup film yet. The movie is not only the most cogent and compelling entry in Reitman’s trilogy, but one of the most tense and audacious films of the year, thanks to a fearsome performance by Charlize Theron.
As Mavis Gary, she sports a “Hello Kitty” t-shirt and guzzles Diet Coke from a liter bottle. She’s a 37-year-old divorcee, alcoholic, and ghost writer of a young adult book series in the vein of The Babysitters’ Club or Sweet Valley High, only nowhere near as popular. Emotionally numb and living alone in Minneapolis, Mavis decides to return to her small Minnesota hometown, with the aim of winning back her very married high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who has unwisely invited her to a baby naming ceremony. Once she arrives, Mavis wiles away the hours she doesn’t spend in day spas preparing for Buddy by drinking with Matt (Patton Oswalt), the guy who had a locker next to hers and would have sold his soul to sleep with her even though he hated her.
Neither Mavis nor Matt has adjusted to the world outside the social categories they occupied as teens, and both cling to high school memories. Mavis was the popular girl who had everything, and doesn’t know how to have nothing; Matt let a brutal high school bullying incident define him as a coward. They bond over their upended dreams, and their strange but beautiful relationship is the heart of the film, with kudos to Oswalt for bringing a sense of warmth to the mostly darkly comic proceedings.
Even Matt sees there’s something wrong with Mavis’ schemes regarding Buddy, however, and he points out more than one once that she’s teetering between pathetic and downright disturbed. This time, Theron play a different sort of monster than Aileen Wuornos, cruel and vapid, with a frightening sense of entitlement. Cody script makes clear Mavis’ sociopathic tendencies, even if she is also too familiar to be recognized as such. Theron switches between hideous and heartbreaking, and she might even make you feel guilty for having ever wished ill on the popular girl at school.
Like Rob Siegel’s Big Fan, Young Adult features a tightly wound protagonist. The question is not whether Paul Aufiero or Mavis will snap, but when and how destructively. Mavis’ inability to recognize her damage, her insistence that everyone else is wrong, make her a reflection of any number of women in romantic comedies who come out with happy endings. That she can’t understand her precarious position back in Minneapolis—which her hokey smalltown neighbors keep calling the “Mini-Apple,” surely the saddest promotional label ever applied to a city—underlines the film’s point, that she will ever be a “young adult,” and also, that she’s not alone.
Despite a sneering condescension toward the simplicity of her hometown, Mavis is drawn to some of the traditional hallmarks of adult achievement she finds there: home ownership, professional stability, marriage, and family. Some of those she left behind are jealous that Mavis has escaped, and even admire her for it: Matt’s sister Sandra (Collette Wolfe), for instance, can’t believe that Mavis doesn’t feel “happy,” sighing, “I wish I could write a book.” In a more conventional movie, this would lead her to true love or some other form of the “fulfillment” she’s seeking. But Young Adult avoids any maudlin learning of lessons and big epiphanies. Mavis doesn’t do much growing up. Some people just don’t.