What if high school really was the best time of your life? In the case of “Yong Adult,” directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, the beautiful Mavis Gary, ghost writer of a successful young adult book series, plays out those halcyon years in print, book after book after book. Except now the series is ending and she must write a final chapter. The divorced Mavis, still beautiful in that high school prom queen sort of way, drinks too much, sleeps around too frequently, and lacks the recognition and insight to see that she is stuck in the mire of “what should have been.” When she receives a casual email announcing the birth of her high school sweetheart Buddy’s new baby, she becomes delusionally convinced that this was his way of proclaiming his undying love and need to be rescued from a mundane life of babies and suburban housewives. Mavis packs her bag, bundles up her little dog and leaves the teeming metropolis of Minneapolis for Mercury, still home to most of her high school classmates. Arriving in town under a ruse, she calls Buddy and makes a date. Observed by Matt, the geek who stared longingly and invisibly at Mavis throughout high school (his locker was next to hers), he attempts to give her a reality check and dissuade her from her home-wrecking plans. If this black comedy were a Greek Tragedy, Matt would be the chorus.
Diablo Cody painstakingly crafted the character of Mavis as a self-absorbed, egotistical case of arrested development. Charlize Theron has taken that character and given her the tragic comic depth that Ms. Cody was no doubt hoping for. In Ms. Theron’s hands, Mavis’s delusions take on a reality all their own. The Buddy that we see is a man happy with his lot in life with Beth, a very loving wife of quiet confidence. Still living in his home town, he has carved out his own sphere and was lucky to have found Beth who exceeds him in both intelligence and understanding.
Theron’s Mavis is the high school mean girl whose mere lack of attention or notice was punishment enough to those around her not blessed with her adolescent grace, bone structure and aplomb. Matt, her polar opposite, is a study in determination and perseverance as he was destroyed in high school, both physically and mentally. His mere survival should be an example to Mavis, but it’s not. Mavis’s life still plays out like the young adult novels she writes, probably because she is always the heroine in her own stories. Theron is fearless in her ability to portray an unsympathetic character whose own self doubt, played out in bouts of trichotillomania, chronic obsessive compulsive hair pulling, is covered by the wigs and hair pieces she uses. Patrick Wilson, a blank slate, is perfect as the benign Buddy whose own curiosity about Mavis may have passive aggressive leanings. Elizabeth Reaser, in what should be the thankless role of Beth, reveals the steel and confidence of a woman who got the life she wanted and knows that even in the bland confines of Mercury, Minnesota, she offers her husband more than he had any right to expect. The supporting cast is uniformly good, giving small but pivotal roles to Jill Eikenberry and Mary Beth Hurt as Mavis’s and Buddy’s mothers. Look out for the hilarious Louisa Krause as the deadpan sardonic motel clerk. The interaction between her character and Mavis is a study in comic irony.
It is, however, Patton Oswalt as Matt who is as revelatory as Theron. He imbues in Matt the persona of a man whose dreams were shattered long ago and has learned to take his lot in life and make it more. He is the moral center who recognizes the difference between growing older and growing up. Mavis, on the other hand has learned nothing and will be condemned to Dante’s fourth level of hell until she does for she is no longer young and clearly not an adult.
Opening Friday December 9 in limited release at the ArcLight Hollywood, AMC Century City and the Landmark Theatre.