How is it possible to both care about someone deeply and, at the same time, find him or her completely reviling? Anyone who has ever dated a musician might be able to answer that. But otherwise, it’s a hard phenomenon to come upon.
But a certain type of great acting performance earns this dichotomy of emotional connection from its audiences. It takes a rare, special talent to draw us so impossibly close to a character who we’d smack ourselves for ever associating with. Somehow, this bizarre brand of cathartic chaos is achieved in the Jason Reitman-directed, Diablo Cody-written Young Adult, thanks to the mystical powers of its lead actress, Charlize Theron.
Young Adult is an interesting twist on the romantic comedy. The story follows Mavis Gary, a moderately successful ghost writer for a young adult (just like the title!) novel series, who returns to her Minnesota hometown to win back the love of her life. The twist: he is happily married and has a new baby—and she knows this. See, in your typical romantic comedy, the female lead is the hero. The underdog. The good guy. In Young Adult, she’s a despicable, manipulative, self-serving suspended-adolescent. So why, then, do we get attached to her?
The truth is, in the hands of a lesser actress, the character might not call for our sympathies at all. Mavis Gary might easily come across as an overgrown version of the one-dimensional “mean girl” archetype that has been propagated for all the wrong reasons ever since a mass misinterpretation of the message of Tina Fey’s eponymous 2004 comedy. But thankfully, instead of this, we get Theron, who does wonders with Mavis. We don’t get some cutout spouting vindictive one-liners for some baseline humor, or a hollow “bad guy” character chronicling her own downfall as we sadistically embrace the delight in her collapse. What we get is a full-fledged, frightfully relatable and unquestionably—and realistically—corroded human being.
This is not to say that Theron does not give a humorous performance. Young Adult is, in large part, a comedy. And it is stacked with terrific comedic players, including Patton Oswalt and Collette Wolfe. But Theron is made to shoulder the bulk of the delivery of Young Adult’s comedy. She is funny when Mavis Gary is being funny. She is funny when the world is being funny to—at, in contrast to, at odds with—Mavis Gary.
And at the same time, she is worth crying over. This supreme narcissist, this oblivious buffoon, this mechanically malicious woman-child is someone we cannot help but to feel for. Theron instills Mavis with a force of humanity that surfaces gradually from beneath her countless layers of malignity. Few performers can deliver a character as multifaceted as Mavis Gary, but Theron is in that minority.
Theron gives us a Mavis Gary who we find grotesque, yes. But she gives us one who we can understand. Sure, none of her actions are admirable. And one can only hope that the majority of us would not, in fact, follow in Mavis’ footsteps if placed in her position. But that doesn’t mean we’re not supposed to appreciate her. As a matter of fact, by the end of the film, we find ourselves connecting with Mavis Gary to a degree far beyond what our comfort levels might permit. We never find Mavis to have a “heart of gold” masked by a crusty outer shell. We never really forgive her for the things she does. But we do come to “get” her. And this is the real triumph of Theron’s performance—she makes us laugh at and with, cry for and because of this character. And through all of that, she gives us a human being who we can come to truly know.