We’ve seen the story, time and time again: a woman and a man who are meant to be with each other, even though one of them is already involved with another person. But it’s clear to us in the audience that this third party is the wrong person. So we root for the other two to get together, against all odds, knowing full well that love takes precedent over established commitments and general practicality.
But Young Adult gives us an interesting twist on the romantic comedy formula: a woman heads back to her hometown to win back the man she loves. The man is, of course, involved…to the point of being married. Happily married. With a child. And absolutely no interest in leaving his wife for our heroine. Yet still, she is hell bent on taking her desired mate away from his perfect life in order to satisfy her newly discovered affection for her old flame. And she’s not above going about achieving her goal dishonorably: she uses manipulation, deceit, alcohol, the works. So you might ask yourself, “How on Earth are we supposed to root for a union like that?” Well, that’s the thing. We’re really not.
In fact, we’re not really supposed to root for the main character at all. Sure, we come to learn a lot about her. We understand her, we pity her, we might even find ourselves relating to her. But throughout, we are never forced to endure a “change of heart” about Mavis Gary, played magnificently by Charlize Theron. She doesn’t find enlightenment from an unexpected place. As a matter of fact, Mavis’ path, albeit filled with surprising turns, only ends up furthering her displaced self-image.
What is outstanding about Young Adult is how well it manages this unusual take on a familiar cinematic formula, all the while presenting a story that feels wholly original. The entire team can be thanked for this. Diablo Cody’s writing style is fresh and electrifying, and teams quite well with Jason Reitman’s colorful, humanizing direction. And the performances are a godsend all around. Theron plays Mavis with both hilarious comic timing and a heartbreaking and haunting humanity. Patton Oswalt delivers a shockingly prominent dramatic turn as Mavis’ former classmate with a much less favorable high school experience. Patrick Wilson, Collette Wolfe and Elizabeth Reaser each contribute superb characters who are uniquely destroyed by Mavis’ path of destruction.
Young Adult is a victory both in its comedy and its drama. Even while chronicling a pitiable downfall of the movie’s central character, it maintains a palpable dark sense of humor. But the film never sacrifices its story or its exploration of Mavis for the sake of laughter—its comedy comes directly from our increasing understanding of who (and why) Mavis is.
The film resonates as one of the freshest in recent cinema—not afraid to embrace both the tragic and the funny aspects of a human story. Thanks to its writing, directing, its stellar cast, and the profound use of music in the movie, Young Adult delivers something that at once entertains and genuinely affects its audiences.