Director Jason Reitman made a very smart decision when approaching his new film Young Adult. His past two successes Juno and Up in the Air were stylized dramedies one with colorful dialogue and production design flourishes the other with precision camera work his director's hand evident at every turn. In his latest he pulls way back letting his lead character—a vile destructive former high school prom queen named Mavis (Charlize Theron)—do the talking. And talk she does—every word a stinging insult disillusioned wish holier-than-thou gripe or embarrassing truth. Reitman unleashes an unfiltered Theron and the results are gut-wrenching hilarious and powerful.
While working on her latest Sweet Valley High-esque book Mavis receives a mass e-mail from her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) announcing that he and his wife are expecting their first child. This sets a fire under Mavis' ass and after chugging a 2-Liter of Diet Coke and throwing on a Hello Kitty tee she hits the road to take back the man that's rightfully hers. Mavis shacks up in a drab hotel located in the heart of her small Minnesota hometown and immediately proceeds to the bar to indulge in her favorite pastime: pounding back whiskey. There she runs in to one of her forgettable high school classmates Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) who she only recalls after being reminded of a horrendous gay bashing that left both his legs crippled ("And I'm not even gay."). The two form an unlikely friendship—Matt being enamored by Mavis' pathetic quest Mavis needing an ear to talk off.
Young Adult's simple premise allows writer Diablo Cody (Juno The United States of Tara) to move Mavis from depressing suburban local to depressing suburban local with ease creating a playground of homogenized perfection for Theron's foul behavior. Whether she open-mouth chewing on fried chicken at the local KFC/Taco Bell covering up last night's hangover with a fresh facial or seducing Buddy at the Applebee's-esque restaurant Mavis never falters always looking down at her surroundings finding excuses for why she's not the source of her own problems.
Theron's performance is fearless one of the few crass female performances shaded with human complexity and empathy. Young Adult is a very funny film that works because of its star's ability to teeter the edge of comical and truly unlikable. Oswalt and Wilson amplify the main performance embodying their own grounded characters to properly riff with the vulgar Mavis. Matt is a very Patton-y character to begin with but between is jokey back-and-forths with Mavis is an inherent sadness one Oswalt surfaces with a contrasting subtly. Unlike Mavis Matt has the ability to rise above is own plight and change. His new friend is tragically a lost cause. At times the film's story feels too narrow never allowing us to really explore Mavis' other relationships but it's hard to naysay for wanting more.
Few movies attempt to mine comedy out of the bleakness of everyday life; even fewer do so while twisting storytelling conventions. You watch Young Adult with hopes for Mavis but Reitman and Cody aren't ready to indulge you. In Theron they've found one of the few actresses in town who can simultaneously look like a conventionally gorgeous blonde bombshell and complete make-up-caked crap a woman with the balls to take a character who relishes in schadenfreude. They don't squander that talent. From the first to the umpteenth Teenage Fanclub sound cue Mavis is delusional caught up in her own fantasy and willing to execute it at any cost. It's a truly cringe-worthy mission but it works because sadly we all know someone like that.
Rabbit-Proof Fence is not fiction. It is the true story of three Aborigine children--Molly and Daisy Craig and their cousin Gracie Fields--who in 1931 were taken forcibly from their mothers and their home in Jigalong in the north of Australia and moved to the Moore River Native Settlement over a thousand miles away. This travesty is carried out in the film on the orders of A.O. Neville Chief Protector of the Aborigines (played by Kenneth Branagh) who believes the best way to solve Australia's "coloured problem" is to breed the aboriginal blood out of mixed-race children. According to his pseudo-scientific rationale for racism the way to do that is to make sure so-called "half castes" don't marry full-blooded Aborigines (that would dilute the white blood you see). Neville is not alone in his sentiments. This popular racial philosophy meant that from 1905 to 1971 (no that's not a typo) it was government policy to remove children from their homes against their will. Molly Daisy and Gracie were three such children and Rabbit-Proof Fence is the story of their remarkable escape from the settlement and their adventures on the journey home to Jigalong--as told by Molly's daughter Doris Pilkington Garimara in a book released on Nov. 27 two days before the film opened in New York and Los Angeles.
As one might imagine the success of this film hinges on the abilities of its very young stars Molly (Everlyn Sampi) Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Monaghan). The three girls come off very well; they're believable in the roles and they truly make you feel the hardship of their journey. They're very mature especially Sampi who carries most of the scenes as the girls' leader helping them to get food find shelter and above all avoid being captured by the Aborigine tracker who follows in their wake Moodoo (David Gulpilil). They don't play the parts too sweetly or innocently which is quite an achievement especially since they still manage to create some pretty intense emotional impact. That being said however something is missing from Rabbit-Proof Fence. Despite the narrative's focus on children of mixed races nearly everything in this film is well black and white. Strong main characters are sacrificed in favor of the social issues the film wants to address so the girls serve as allegorical figures for the hopes of every mixed-race child and Branagh stands for every nasty white racist who ever walked on Australian soil. While there's nothing wrong with allegory per se and while there's no question who was right and who was wrong in the historical situation it doesn't necessarily make for a compelling or thought-provoking film.
Thanks to director Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American The Bone Collector) and director of photography Christopher Doyle (The Quiet American In the Mood for Love) you hardly notice while you're watching the movie that you're being pounded 'bout the head with moral pronouncements. This is one gorgeous-looking film. The fence that guides the girls home (ironically enough built by their white fathers who've moved on to build elsewhere) runs on for miles; heat shimmers over a vast empty desert that somehow still seems beautiful. Moments like these enhanced by a fascinating soundtrack from world music maestro Peter Gabriel make it easier to overlook the weaknesses of the story. But there's no question that the film's symbols serve as little more than that: The fence which could have been used to great effect as a metaphor instead serves merely as a symbol of the racial separation already depicted in the story. A soaring "spirit bird" that Molly watches wide-eyed with wonder is such an obvious symbol of freedom it's almost painful; there are no layers of meaning here. Everything is cut and dried which seems to be becoming a habit for Noyce whose The Quiet American was similarly lacking in subtlety.