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Mavis Gary is a mess, a one-time high-school hottie now going to seed at 37. She’s a best-selling author, sort of (she ghost-writes a series of popular Young Adult novels), but her Minneapolis apartment is a pit, she has a serious bourbon problem, and she chugs Coke for breakfast after waking up next to whichever random lug she happened to bring home the night before.
One day Mavis gets a blast email announcing the birth of a baby, adorable photo attached. It’s from Buddy Slade, her old high school boyfriend. High school was 20 years ago, but Mavis remembers it—and Buddy—fondly: She wasn’t a mess then. Giving the matter some self-centered thought, she decides that Buddy is the guy she was meant to be with. He’s still living in their corny hometown, married now, and with the baby, it’s true; but why should that stand in the way of her winning him back?
In Young Adult, director Jason Reitman and his Juno scribe Diablo Cody attempt something tricky. Cody’s story is a deconstruction of that Hollywood staple, the romantic comedy hooked on an idiotic premise. These are the kind of pictures in which a woman desperate for a child has herself artificially inseminated and then discovers that the requisite fluid has been anonymously donated by her adoring best friend. Or two girlfriends discover that their long-planned weddings have been accidentally scheduled at the Plaza Hotel on the very same day. The trailer for Young Adult might seem to promise exactly that sort of disposable chuckle fest. But the movie is actually much darker, and more daring.
Arriving back in Mercury, Minnesota, Mavis finds that there’s now even more to sneer at. (“We’re gettin’ a new Chipotle at the mall,” one resident enthuses—while local women with long memories deplore the return of the “psychotic prom-queen bitch.”) Ducking into a bar, she encounters Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a onetime high school classmate she only hazily recalls: “Weren’t you that hate-crime guy?” Indeed he was. Back in the day Matt, wrongly thought to be gay, was viciously beaten—his legs shattered, his genitalia irreparably damaged—by a gang of “those jocks you used to blow during lunch,” as he puts it. (Mavis’ response: “You can’t keep dwelling on the past.”) Now Matt limps about with a cane, lives with his sister, and has no life to speak of. Soon he has a mission, though: derailing Mavis’ bizarre scheme to lasso the good-natured Buddy (Patrick Wilson) away from his sweet, cheerful wife, Beth (an endearing Elizabeth Reaser).
Mavis is a woman with no redeeming qualities. (Addressing Beth in Buddy’s presence, she says, “I still sleep in his t-shirts and boxers.”) She’s impossible to like, and yet Theron’s unyieldingly hard-shelled performance is fascinating. Wilson’s Buddy is almost an ancillary character—his love for his family is stronger than Mavis is capable of imagining, but there’s not much more for the actor to demonstrate. The movie’s warmest and most winning presence is Oswalt, playing a man whose heart has proved more durable than his crippled body. It’s a resourceful, career-changing performance.
In the usual rom-com of this sort, you’d know with a weary certainty where the story was headed. But Young Adult doesn’t go there, or anywhere nearby. For a mass-market film, this is a considerable risk. It’s good to know there are filmmakers still willing to take it.