Screening Log #54: Young Adult (2011)

Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, and Patrick Wilson

 

 

 

You can always go home. You can never go home again. Home is where the heart is. There is a complicated and shifting sentiment about where a home is located and whether or not you can return to it once you’ve left – if, indeed, leaving it is possible in the first place. There is always the tension of dueling ideas: that home is at once a comforting and familiar place, filled by people with whom you have a mutually loving relationship, and also a place wherein your historical baggage can cement any notion of subsequent personal growth – history as steadying ballast balances against history as capsizing weight. This complication is further exacerbated when the distinction between these two viewpoints are confused or interchanged.

The romanticizing of the past in an arrested adult development is the quandary that lies at the heart of Diablo Cody’s second film with Jason Reitman, Young Adult. Mavis Gary, Charlize Theron, works as a ghost-writer for a once-popular young adult fiction series in Minneapolis. The film opens and shows a sample of her daily routine, living alone, waking and drinking straight from a two litre bottle of Diet Coke, playing video games on her Wii, checking her e-mail, and, sometimes, writing something for the last book in the series that she is working on. Her only meaningful connection seems to be with her Pomeranian, Dolce. Her marriage has failed and she moves through a date, faking interest in the gentleman’s charitable work teaching young children in Asia. Fixated on a recent e-mail from her now-married high school paramour, Buddy Slade, Patrick Wilson, Mavis impulsively decides that her road to happiness leads through her old home town of Mercury and the ruin of Buddy’s budding family life.

Mavis gathers a few things, including a mixed tape that, presumably, Buddy made for her while they were together and sets off for home in her Mini Cooper, leaving her one night stand slumbering in her bed. The presence of the cassette tape firmly reasserts Cody’s simultaneously perceptive and cloying preoccupation with the accoutrements of nostalgia, which here actually serve to underscore the regressive mentality of her protagonist, rather than merely grate on the viewer. The film makers, both Reitman and Cody, have a handful of clever ideas, but insist on them too heavily; when Mavis begins her drive home she plays a particular song from the tape, rewinding it and playing again before it is finished, Reitman’s focus on the internal workings of the tape player as the credits unfold further asserting the film’s intoxication with nostalgia. To do this once would be sufficient, however, it’s repeated several times, undercutting the cleverness of the gesture with a dogged fidelity to the main character’s mostly likely psychoses. The film similarly overplays the connection between Mavis’ authoring of the young fiction story and its parallels to her own personal life.

After arriving in Mercury, Mavis runs into Matt Freehauf, Patton Oswalt, at a bar. Matt was beaten in high school on suspicion of being gay, despite not actually being gay, and was entirely ignored by the popular Mavis despite his locker being adjacent to hers. Matt functions as Mavis’ absent critical voice, objecting to her intentions for Buddy while maintaining his own, clumsily overt, connection to their high school years. Mavis’ focus is delusionally myopic and, to the film’s credit, her character remains largely unchanged through the course of the film, even following a semi-public meltdown.

It is after this meltdown that the film reveals its hand, perhaps a little too crassly, aligning itself more on the side of Mavis’ alcoholic delusions rather than the “wholesomeness” of the small town itself. Being positioned as clearly dysfunctional and problematically self-involved, Mavis stands in, intentionally or not, for the film’s belief in the old trope of it being better to be a creative and financial success (albeit in relative terms) than to be an honest small town person. Cody and Reitman accurately and ruthlessly depict the negative aspects of living in a culturally stultifying place without giving the same attention to the elements that speak positively to that life choice. Buddy, his wife, and the town’s other characters are barely there, their communal and happy lives are gestured toward, but with a dismissively limp wrist. As such, any critique of Mavis’ character and her choices the film may look to instill in its audience is undercut and rendered moot. This position is made explicitly clear by a late conversation between Mavis and Matt’s sister and her final narration, excerpted from her book.

Ultimately the product of some very fine acting, from Theron and Oswalt in particular, and some perhaps too-clever writing and directing – even if the script is light of Juno-isms and, at least, more honest about its fetishization of the middle class than some of Reitman’s other films – Young Adult constructs a handsomely and problematically one-sided argument with the straw man of normalcy. The film’s own failings are appropriately predicated on its inability to see beyond the main character it’s created, evidence, perhaps, in the infectiousness of self-interest.

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