Monday, December 19, 2011

Mavis Gary: Young Adult

In Juno and Jennifer's Body, Diablo Cody explored some of the life-changing and scary things that can and can't happen to teenagers in high school. This time around Cody explores what it’s like to be thirty-seven, or thereabouts, looking back upon those high school years, an experience that touched some people and caused other people a lot of pain.

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a moderately successful writer of a young adult novel series, but she is divorced, lonely, alcoholic, doubting her talents. When she learns that Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), her high school beau, is married and has just had a baby, she embarks on a quest: to go back to her small hometown in Minnesota and wrest her former boyfriend from wife, baby, and home. But now Buddy, the former high school alpha male, is a puffy-faced father who unabashedly pours breast milk into screw-top bags as he talks over the good old days with former flame Mavis Gary. Buddy seems just fine in the small town of Mercury, Minnesota, where the dining options range from Chili's to KFC, and where his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reese), plays the drums for a discordant band of thirty-something moms. Mavis, from the big city, would like to think that Buddy can do better than this and they can "beat this thing together."

Jason Reitman's Young Adult is a surprisingly touching examination of how we feel about the past. What are the moments that touched us? What are the moments that injured us? (Patton Oswalt gives a heartfelt supporting performance as Mavis's locker neighbor in high school, an overweight outcast beaten up and crippled by jocks.) How do we get past those moments and eke out a satisfactory existence for ourselves in the here and now? These questions are ones worth pondering. What's surprising about the film is that Mavis's quest seems so desperate and what she would like to get would destroy a family, yet I found myself identifying with her late-thirties crisis.

Strangely, Matt, the nerdy, crippled reject, emerges as Mavis's best ally. Suffering the complications of his beating, Matt lives with his sister, makes hybrid models out of pieces of superhero action figures, and ages homemade whiskey in his garage. Whereas Mavis never acknowledged Matt's existence in high school, now she seeks his help, his advice, his comforting embrace, and their developing relationship is the film's nice surprise. As a young adult who still needs to figure life out, Mavis sees that Matt copes with what he has. Talking to Matt's sister, Sandra (Collette Wolf), who seems to think that life would be better in the big city, Mavis sees that it might be better to be satisfied with what one has. Diablo Cody's Juno is a clever little comedy-drama; Jennifer's Body is a wild teenage fantasy-horror pic; but Young Adult is Cody's settled, more thoughtful look at the experiences that shape us and how we deal with where we end up.

Although Mavis’s quest seems immature, selfish, and cold, I identified with her bitter edge. As a writer, Mavis seems to know how to persevere in the face of unlikely success, and that edgy strength seems to fuel her futile endeavor. When our current condition doesn’t seem so rosy, we wonder about the choices we made in the past; we wonder if we can get what we lost. Theron plays Mavis’s acidic glare, her icy lies, with convincing precision. I can’t judge Mavis for that cold, self-centered glare. We’ve all had those moments of bitter regret. Mavis takes her bitter obsession to a pathetic extreme, but hers is a voice crying out in the wilderness that we all call home.

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