Mavis Gary, a writer of teen literature, returns to her small hometown to relive her glory days and attempt to reclaim her happily married high school sweetheart. When returning home proves more difficult than she thought, Mavis forms an unusual bond with a former classmate who hasn’t quite gotten over high school, either
High school reunion flicks are ten a penny, and play to our morose curiosity of what others are up now, and how better/worse others have faired since leaving education. Up in the Air director Jason Reitman has teamed up with Academy Award-winning writer Diablo Cody of his other hit teenage dramedy, Juno, to take this ‘home-coming’ idea to depressing new levels of self reflection and blacken humour that the results of unregulated and misguided nostalgia can generate.
Charlize Theron is Mavis Gary, a writer of teen literature that is going out of fashion who returns to her small hometown to relive her glory days and attempt to reclaim her happily married high school sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). When returning home proves more difficult than she first thought, Mavis forms an unusual bond with a former classmate, Matt (Patton Oswalt), who hasn’t quite gotten over high school, either.
Cody is simply untouchable in this genre, exactly capturing in words and expressions the dormant demons of our youth and awakening them, so much so that the sheer honesty of her writing in this – minus the candid and sharp observations of Juno – has an alarmingly bittersweet effect as we witness Mavis’s delusions of grandeur, monumental indiscretions and cringeworthy mistakes. The truth is in the character detail, the fact that Mavis is far from happy and successful in life – aside from the obvious alcohol addiction, from the moment she replays the same old song of her youth in her car to recapture her lost self-esteem and school stature, to the tragic meltdown on a front lawn. The sobering fact this film emphasises is people don’t change – circumstances do, and it’s how we deal and grown with them that ultimately defines us in (hopefully) a better way.
Theron is an absolute riot in this, despicable most of the time as troubled Mavis. She strips away any past glamour, and reiterates her award-winning Monster star power by making Mavis a method-acted challenge, rather than falling into the genre stereotype. Her character’s self-destructive patterns leave possibilities wide open for what transpires next, and highlights the irony that Mavis – against her will – is far more content without aspiring for the trappings of success she deems as necessary. Cody layers her main character with other personal issues that affect her behaviour, such as depilating depression that even the best cosmetic efforts cannot hide.
It’s Theron’s unusual but riveting partnership with Oswalt that provides some of the most memorable and poignant moments in the film. Far from being a pathetic man-child stuck in the past, Matt earns a respectful strength of character as the film progresses, which merely reflects Mavis’s faults and inner ugliness. In fact, Mavis’s actual problem with former school ‘loser’ Matt isn’t his lack of ambition and drive to reinvent himself by escaping small-town living, but her own shocking realisation that her chance has been and gone, and any way of getting out of the mire is being hindered by her own personality and self-inflicted issues.
As coming-of-age stories go, Reitman and Cody’s Young Adult is a stone-cold sobering one of sheer brilliance, packed with ironic laughs and painful honesty and observations. Theron is in her finest form yet, giving a courageous mixed portrayal of immaturity and enlightenment as one lost soul searching for purpose.