Film of the month: Young Adult

Film still for Film of the month: Young Adult

After their earlier collaboration on the crowd-pleasing Juno, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman have reteamed for an altogether more bracing follow-up, Young Adult, which overturns every romcom cliché. By Lisa Mullen

Mavis Gary was the ultimate high-school prom queen, the girl who always had the best hair and the best boyfriend. A work of fiction in every sense, she spent her teens living an all-American fantasy that promised she would forever be a winner in the game of life. As an adult, she has followed this script, moving to the big city to be a glamorous writer, even though that turned out to be a dead-end job in Minneapolis bashing out reams of low-rent Young Adult prose –peddling, in fact, the same fantasies she was sold as a kid. But now she’s getting older and the bubble of her self-belief is ready to pop. It’s no longer fun to get drunk every night and have one-night stands with men she’s met online. It’s time to go back to her small-town beginnings and reclaim her crown. And how better to do it than by breaking up the happy marriage of her clean-scrubbed high-school sweetheart, Buddy?

That’s the premise of a film that takes a cynical sideswipe at every high-school romcom cliché about the comeuppance of the beautiful but shallow. Diablo Cody’s razor-sharp script operates on the basis that we all know how this fairytale goes: proud Mavis will be taken down a peg or two, and so will grow and learn; and then she’ll find the bluebird of happiness was right under her nose all the time. Except this time she won’t. This Mavis will refuse to take her medicine; she’ll bitch, cheat and scheme to get what she wants, and she won’t understand why she’s wrong to want it. She’s a car crash and a train wreck rolled into one, and we’re going to cackle happily as the twisted metal flies.

Young Adult is much funnier and infinitely more savage than Cody’s earlier collaboration with director Jason Reitman, the cute but rather cosy Juno (2007). It is also – despite its character’s pathological immaturity – more grown-up. Mavis’s wickedness is deliriously refreshing. Her snorting rudeness to everyone she meets – from men she’s dating to hapless receptionists – hits you like a faceful of ice water, all the more so since this kind of stuff never, ever comes out of a pretty girl’s mouth in the movies – not even in the movies that think they’re a bit edgy.

Charlize Theron couldn’t be more perfect for the part of Mavis; not only is she annoyingly beautiful, she also has the intelligence to understand Mavis’s tragicomic overlap and the ability to communicate her self-hating undertow at crucial moments. Equally good is Patton Oswalt as her temporary sidekick Matt, the former classmate who becomes her confidant and drinking partner. They make a glorious double act as they booze and argue themselves unconscious every evening, with Matt trying to talk some sense into Mavis even as he worships at her feet.

In the sunnier flipside of this film, Matt would be the loveable nerd who Mavis finally realises is a diamond in the rough; in this universe, however, Matt is an embittered loner with major problems of his own. A vicious attack by the school’s pack of alpha males put his teenage self in hospital for long months, and he’s still crippled by emotional scars and physical disabilities. One of the keynote gags is that Mavis is too busy feeling sorry for herself to notice that Matt got a much worse deal. But while Matt is the voice of reason as far as Mavis’s misguided quest is concerned, he is, in his own way, just as stuck in the past as she is. Mavis may have a narcissistic personality disorder, but at least she’s grappling with life and trying to ease her howling sense of disappointment. Matt has simply given up.

It’s this kind of irony that gives the film its unusual texture – and makes the first two acts fascinating and cathartic to watch. But when you’ve finished hooting at the awfulness of Mavis’s bitch-from-hell act, and the film starts moving towards its resolution, it starts to look a lot less subversive. By giving Mavis all the best lines and jolting the film out of the rut of genre expectation, Cody almost allows us to root for the bad girl. But how can that be, when her chosen love interest is a happily married man with a new baby? No, Mavis must be punished after all. She must be exposed as a fake (even her hair is a cheat) and put back in her fictional box. Instead of frail flesh and blood, she becomes an Aunt Sally, there to embody the fears of proper, normal husbands and wives – to be repeatedly knocked down and then ritually killed. Like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, she is the predatory single woman as monster. A monster with jokes, a monster with a (gradually revealed) backstory, maybe – but a monster all the same.

Just as Juno used cliché inversion and an unconventional female lead to celebrate orthodox apple-pie family values, Young Adult is a conservative film at heart. In a sense, Cody and Reitman get stuck trying to have it both ways. Traces of a much less Fox News-friendly treatment are discernible: for comedy reasons, Buddy (Patrick Wilson) has to be a bathetic bore with no discernible personality; but his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) may not be quite the victim she seems. Surrounded by her cronies, arms crossed and ready to face down the “prom-queen bitch”, she looks like she might be nursing a few unsettled scores herself. It is she, after all, who throws the first punch by sending Mavis a gloating email announcing the birth of her and Buddy’s baby. As a plotline, though, none of this can be developed any further without upsetting the moral values at the film’s core.

This nexus of ambiguity – are Buddy and Beth salt-of-the-earth, nice-person heroes or smug, passive-aggressive idiots? – marks the point where writerly complexity bumps up against the linearity of mainstream film. Reitman deserves full credit for the density of the characterisation and the relentless pace of the action (note that Cody’s post-Juno, non-Reitman horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body hit some disappointingly bum notes), but this is surely a writer’s film in its electrically supercharged current of ideas.

It’s important to remember that Mavis, as well as being a walking fiction, is a genre writer herself. In fact, as she reluctantly admits, she’s only one of a team of writers who churn out cookie-cutter instalments of a teen-book series, contractually obliged to follow a narrow preset narrative. At one point Mavis sails into the local bookshop, heads over to a bargain-bin display of her own books, and sets about autographing as many of them as possible before she’s escorted off the premises. It’s tempting to see this as a bit of sly self-critique from Cody. Like Mavis, she is trying to leave her mark as a writer on some well-trodden fictive territory.

To date, she has succeeded; few screenplays reach the multiplexes so thoroughly stamped with their author’s personality as Young Adult. But Cody may find that messing about within the confines of established genres is ultimately a frustrating exercise – the ineluctable DNA of the form will always reassert itself. Given the audacity of the work she produces when she’s playing by someone else’s rules, who knows what Cody could come out with when she’s saying what she really means?

See also

The Descendants reviewed by Philip Kemp (February 2012)

An Education reviewed by Kate Stables (November 2009)

Bridget Jones's Diary reviewed by Leslie Felperin (April 2001)

Election reviewed by Geoffrey Macnab (October 1999)

Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011