Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) makes a living ghostwriting novels geared towards the tween crowd. They call this Young Adult Fiction – YA in publisher’s lingo. The books are part of a series created by another author. They were at one time incredibly popular. Now, the series has been cancelled. The book she’s currently writing will be the final installment. Although she gets by financially, she does not live the glamorous life of a successful author. She lives alone in an unkempt Minneapolis apartment with her dog, an adorable Pomeranian, who she carries around yet doesn’t seem to love unconditionally. One day, while rummaging through her e-mails, she comes across one sent by her high school sweetheart, who still lives in their small hometown, is now happily married, and has recently had a baby girl.
Mavis decides to return to her hometown and reclaim her lost love. His name is Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). It doesn’t matter that he has taken his vows, and it matters even less that he’s raising a daughter. She knows he isn’t happy. How can anyone be happy living in a small hick town, despite the fact that it has expanded to include a KFC, a Taco Bell, and a Pizza Hut (all put under the same roof)? She understands that he has baggage, but she’s willing to work through it with him. This has to work out, because in her mind, they were always meant to be together. Clearly, reality has not caught up with this woman. Emotionally, she was stunted as a teenager; to this day, she wakes up every morning with a hangover. She lives in a fantasy world in which love conquers all, as demonstrated by films like “The Graduate.”
Jason Reitman’s Young Adult was written by Diablo Cody, who, following Juno and Jennifer’s Body, shows yet again her affinity for adolescent characters in interesting situations. What makes this particular film noteworthy is that the adolescent is a woman in her thirties. On the basis of her binge drinking and stubborn refusal to let go of the past, Mavis has absolutely no desire to grow up. Hers is a world of impossible ideals. When she finally reunites with Buddy, it’s at a Chili’s-type restaurant; she would have preferred the bar they used to hang out at, but he’s a father now, and he has to be home by a certain time. She makes herself so alluring that she looks strikingly out of place – a slinky black dress with a low neckline, fancy jewelry, a neat manicure and pedicure, perfectly applied makeup, an attractive ‘do enhanced by a hairpiece.
Buddy seems pleased to see Mavis, although there’s no real indication that he’s interested in running away with her to the city. He’s a simple, small-town guy living a simple, small-town life. He loves his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), the drummer for a local girl band. He’s devoted to his daughter. Why can’t Mavis see that he’s happy as he is? Keeping tabs over the situation is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who not only attended the same high school as Mavis but also had the locker directly next to hers. He now works as an accountant for the restaurant. She doesn’t remember him until she sees him walking with a crutch; while still a teenager, he was beaten by gang of bullies who thought he was gay. It was considered a hate crime until he was discovered to be straight. It wasn’t a mere schoolyard scuffle. His leg was shattered, and his penis was permanently damaged. He ended up missing six months of school.
Matt is in some ways just as stunted as Mavis. He lives with his sister, and he spends most of his time painting action figures. He brews his own bourbon in his garage, naming the label after the Mos Eisley spaceport in Star Wars. Back in high school, he was never noticed. He was, to put it bluntly, a short, fat science fiction nerd. Mavis was, of course, hugely popular. That didn’t stop guys like Matt from noticing her. Now he’s seeing her at her worst. And isn’t it funny that she’s only noticing him now, when he’s far from his best? He’s certainly not at his worst; that would have been when he was first beaten. Even then, she never gave much thought to it. When she first speaks with him, she refers to him only as “the hate-crime guy.”
One of the interesting things about Young Adult is that neither Cody nor Reitman go to great lengths to make Mavis a likeable character. We don’t especially sympathize with her from the start, and by the end, we’ve pretty much sided against her completely. We see right through her beauty. We might even take a little pleasure in watching it fade over the course of just a few days. At last, she looks as miserable on the outside as she is on the inside. Who does she think she is, coming into town hoping to destroy a marriage and family? How has she deluded herself into believing that she’s trying to do Buddy a favor? The truth is, it has absolutely nothing to do with him. At a certain point, she’s just going to have to realize that life doesn’t follow the pages of a young adult novel.
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