Saturday, December 17, 2011

Death of a High School Queen -- Reflections on "Young Adult" (2011)

Why do geeks always have to ride shotgun, huh?

Have you ever wondered what happened to all those people you used to know in high school? The popular ones who paraded down the halls like royalty, encouraging the worship of lesser mortals? Maybe you were one of those people – what happened to you? Social networking has sort of eliminated the need for high school reunions to a degree because we can “friend” all those people now, and take a peek into their lives. As cool as that is, though, I’m curious how much social websites encourage and reinforce those myths.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman seem to be wondering this, too, and in their hilarious, scathing new comedy Young Adult, they deliver a movie that makes it clear all those members of high school royalty are just as fucked up as you are. This is a film about how, in many ways, life after high school is even tougher for those Prom Kings and Queens. It must be difficult to go from being worshipped – or at least considering yourself worshipped – to becoming a regular joe. Graduation is the great equalizer, though, and getting the largest ovation during the ceremony does not necessarily constitute a better life.

Case in point: Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron). She was the prom queen, the hot girl, the football captain’s main squeeze. No doubt at one point during her high school life she was the envy of all the girls who had yet to embrace their inner beauty, and the masturbatory fantasy of geeks who couldn’t believe they had anything to offer girls like her. Her post-high school life seems promising. She moved to the big city of Minneapolis and started ghost writing books for a series of young adult novels about teen girls. To the outside observer, Mavis’ life is one of luxury, fame, and mystery – she’s still as unattainable a celebrity as she was when she graced those hallowed halls.

We know differently, though. Mavis, as played by the revelatory Theron, is an alcoholic adolescent. Her career as a writer is about to end, as the series of books she writes have lost favor with teen girls (no doubt replaced by stories of co-dependent teen girls in love with emotionally unavailable vampires), and she is a middle-aged divorcee, seemingly with no friends except her cute, oft neglected toy dog. This is a woman looking for an excuse to matter again.

Mavis gets her excuse in an email from Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), her high school flame, in which he announces the birth of his daughter. While most would see this as a celebration of life, Mavis sees it as a cry of help from Buddy, and she convinces herself that they are destined to be together. Her life is a miserable train wreck not because of false expectations, bad decisions, and alcoholism, but because she and Buddy broke up and went their separate ways. So, Mavis, desperate and crazy, heads back home to her small Minnesotan town with the hopes of winning back Buddy’s adoration, even if it means destroying his home and family like a Midwestern tornado.

Of course, things don’t go according to Mavis’ plans. The most interesting obstacle comes in the form of Matt Frehauf (Patton Oswalt), the invisible geek that had the locker next to Mavis’ all four years of high school, but whom she can only remember as “The Hate Crime Guy.” In his Senior year, Matt was attacked by a group of homophobic football players who wrongly assumed he was gay and beat him so badly that not only does he walk with a cane, but his cock doesn’t even stand right. To Mavis, this is an amusing anecdote, and her lack of sympathy, combined with Matt’s own eternal adolescent worship of beauty queens make them unlikely allies in Mavis’ quest.

Reitman and Cody manage to take this story, which could become a clich├ęd mess, and make it a bittersweet character study. Mavis is a wholly unlikable character – vain, selfish, oblivious, judgmental, delusional, and just plain mean. Yet, she is sympathetic – a flawed woman on a quest for redemption. It’s this contradiction that gives Young Adult both its bite and its heart. We, like Matt and all those high school kids, equally worship and revile her. For every moment we feel for her, find ourselves on her side, Mavis reminds us why she is such a bitch. Credit Theron for being brave enough to play this character without a shred of irony or pathos. She won’t win an Oscar for this performance – it’s too subtle and nuanced, and too dark in a non-showy way – but she will win admiration and fandom.

And while Mavis is unlikable, Matt Frehauf is her total opposite. Patton Oswalt gives his “I’ve arrived” character actor performance in this film. Matt hangs over this film as a moral conscience, providing the audience with an “in” to the story, yet the irony of his feelings towards Mavis is not ignored. He thinks she’s a delusional idiot who can’t let go of the past. Yet, like her, he is trapped in the past, obsessed with what his life could have been had he not been nearly beaten to death. They are natural foils, and this movie is at its most riveting in the scenes featuring Theron and Oswalt.

Mavis’ journey is familiar, yet unique. Because of the film’s structure, we’re supposed to root for her to destroy Buddy’s marriage, but of course we can’t do that. Rooting against marriage is like hating puppies, or wanting kids to fail in school. So, we root for her coming to an understanding. The movie provides many moments of epiphany – my favorite being at a bar when she is forced to listen to Buddy’s wife dedicate a song to him, that just so happens to be the same song Buddy put on a mixtape for Mavis during their glory days – but never caves under the pressure to provide an easy release. The ending is unexpected because it is exactly what should happen – the sort of ending crowd-pleasing filmmakers would be incapable of making.

For me, Young Adult is one of the year’s best films. It is full of rich, complex characters in a story that eschews convention for something more real and enlightening.

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