dir: Jason Reitman
Charlize Theron was terrifying in Monster, where she played serial killer Aileen Wuornos all those years ago, snagging an Oscar for her performance.
There are scenes in Young Adult where she’s even more horrifying.
She does this thing with her eyes where she leeches them of all human sentiment or human feeling. They transform into the eyes of some infinitely old and infinitely cold alien who observes our species with nothing but contempt.
And then she just acts like a self-centred brat who’s never grown up from being the high school mean/popular girl, who is doomed to be nothing but this for the rest of her life.
When Mavis (Charlize Theron) receives a group e-mail announcing the birth of her married, high-school boyfriend’s daughter, who has been out of her life for decades, she somehow twists this to mean that now is the time for her to return to her shitty home town to rescue him from a life of domesticity and human feeling.
She is a piece of work, a true piece of work. Her alcoholism is only one of her many estimable qualities. When she piles in to her car in order to drive back home to Mercury, Minnesota, with miniature dog in tow, she puts in a tape that dates back to her glory days, to the halcyon, to the peak of existence.
That tape, a mixtape, is just one of the many testaments to a certain age, here. What kids make mixtapes these days? I would hazard a guess that there’s possibly only about five people constructing even ‘mixtape’ CDs worldwide, and they’re probably just perverts.
What’s the contemporary equivalent? Sending a text message with a playlist that has links to the torrentz where some songs could be downloaded? Cram that up your iPod’s nethers and smoke to it, freaks and groovers.
Mavis plays the same song again and again. Actually, not even the entire song. She keeps repeating the intro mostly, again and again, just to hear the words “She wears denim wherever she goes / says she’s gonna get some records by The Status Quo oh yeah / Oh Yeah.”
Oh, yes indeed, it’s a great song from a great album, being The Concept from Bandwagonesque by Teenage Fanclub. It’s meant to date not the film but the protagonist. The strangest thing, for me at least, is that it perfectly situated me in a time and place so I could understand the exact era these halcyon days of hers were meant to be from: the early 90s. If it had been a Nirvana song, that would have been too broad, and too on the nose, too easy. But this song narrowed it down even more.
It’s the way that she keeps playing the first bit of the song that’s even more telling, or possibly even more telling. She can’t even let the rest of the song play, or the tape itself. As if that wasn’t subtle enough, the song plays a key part later on as well.
This song means a lot. It not only recalls a time and place, but the feeling she feels from listening to its intro means, absolutely, that the object of her affections/delusions must feel the same way. Surely?
Though this flick certainly follows a path, it doesn’t really have a plot per se. It’s a character study of, as these things usually are, a pretty fucked-up character. What it does is follow that character, being Mavis, as she embarks on a journey of complete self-non-discovery. This is a ‘real’ person, as in, this complicated and not at all likable character tries to do something which is fairly delusional, and learns nothing from it, changes nothing about her life, learns nothing new about her life or her place in the world, and basically keeps on keeping on.
There’s something admirable about that, but I mean that only in the loosest use of the word. In a sense, I mean it so loosely that it doesn’t mean ‘admirable’ at all. She is a very interesting character, though, very compelling, and it’s a superb performance from Theron throughout.
She gets back to her hometown and finds it just as worthy of contempt as it was when she left it twenty years ago. Of course, at no stage do we buy that the people of the town are awful scum living lives of very noisy desperation. We don't view the world through Mavis's eyes, at all. Everything she does, every self-serving, mean, delusional thing she does and says reflects poorly on her, not the world.
It's not a subtle story, but that doesn't mean it lacks depth or dramatic heft. Of course we are laughing, much of the time, at how awful she is, but we see what a force for evil in the world she is, and the pain that underlies much of her existence. The flick makes no bones about the fact that she was a popular mean bitch in high school who still persists in treating the world like it’s one big popularity contest in which her self-serving opinions matter a damn. They don’t. School’s out for ever.
Mavis' bread and butter is writing young adult fiction novels where she clearly still excels at capturing the incredibly self-centred and incredibly naive world of teenagers, because it's one she's still trapped in. As she goes through the film, when she's not writing out lines she's borrowed from teenagers at malls and fast food places, she relates the adventures of the protagonist of her novel as a surrogate for herself, and her ignorant hopes and dreams. It’s even more self-serving pap than the stuff she usually tells people. The fantastical element for her is that as little interest as she has in actual reality, her books allow her to get the petty revenge on those who disagree with her, at the very least in a way that satisfies her particular awfulness.
I’ve gone this long without even talking about her alcoholism, which is profound, and which there’s nothing funny about, though they get laughs out of it. They wring humour from this misery like someone wringing booze out of a barman’s cloth.
Her target, the man who will make everything better in her narcissistic, miserable life, is Buddy (Patrick Wilson), a married man who’s now also a father with a darling little girl. He has had no contact with Mavis for decades, and is happy to catch up with a former girlfriend. The problem is he has no idea that Mavis somehow believes that they are destined to be together, that it’s fate, that it must be just because she says so.
The far more critical relationship she enjoys, however briefly, is with someone else she went to school with, who also, like her, carries with him a lot of baggage from high school. Matt (Patton Oswalt), is a short, crippled guy who took a brutal beating towards the end of school which left him disabled – sorry – differently abled for life. He walks with a crutch and lives with his family, and surprise surprise, considering that Patton himself looks like the pasty dictionary definition of a nerdish geek, still lives with family and paints figurines in his ample spare time.
He remembers Mavis well, though she only remembers him as a guy who got gaybashed for being a ‘theatre fag’. The only thing they have in common is being incapable of letting go of the past (he with better reason) and a deep love of drinking. She seems like she’s only interested in his home-made whiskies and such, but what he really is, is another person to reflect back to her how awesome she is/was. She gives dismissive advice to him about how he should let go of the past, even as she shares her idiotic plans for snatching Buddy away from his happy life.
Matt’s the only person who calls her on her bullshit, but it’s not enough to penetrate the layers of narcissistic self-interest, a cloud of which follows her around perpetually. Of course all of this is going to build to a head, but as I said before, this isn’t a journey of self-discovery. In other flicks of this type, the jaded person returns home to reconnect with family and friends to realise how they let the important elements of their lives slip away due to whatever, whether it’s greed or selfishness. They have humbling experiences, realise the error of their ways, and a new day dawns for them and the people around them.
Mavis ends up having humbling experiences, as when she realises how little she matters to the world, and what the people she’s inflicted herself upon really think of her, and it’s not enough to inspire anything.
The crucial event is shocking, and affecting for us, and it affects her too, but not in the way we’d expect. It leaves her deeply vulnerable, and deeply in need of affirmation, but there’s nothing more to come from it.
You almost have to admire her resilience in the face of everything. You almost admire her incapability to change, or to even think about changing. When she even entertains the idea, she ends up having a conversation with a sychophant from her school days who bolsters her by saying, “The people in this town are shit, you don’t need to change.” Although I have no doubt that it actually happened in the flick, it so much played out as a self-swaddling delusion that I thought for sure that the character was a figment of Mavis’s unfertile imagination.
It’s a really strong film, with a great central performance, and a great supporting cast. Patton lays it on a bit thick, and I even felt sorry for the poor guy at one stage, but he’s great too. Jason Reitman’s every film thus far, being Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and this one, have all been remarkably solid, and this perhaps is his best thus far. I really liked it even as the flick asserts nothing positive in this or any other part of the world.
People they ain’t no good. And they don’t change, and if they do, it’s not for the better. That deserves to be on a birthday card, surely. Get the fuck on it now, Hallmark, or else.
8 ways in which the patheticness of seeing a character in love with someone from over a decade ago who’s married and a parent was almost too much to handle out of 10
“Sometimes, in order to heal, a few people have to get hurt.” – no, they don’t, Mavis, no they don’t – Young Adult