Young Adult takes its premise from the Hollywood Rom Com Storyline Generator™ and tips it on its blonde head.
Charlize Theron plays ageing prom queen Mavis Gary, who returns to her “hick” hometown to try to rekindle her high school romance with Buddy Slade, who is now married with a baby. She says she’s only back in town for “a real estate thing”, luxuriating in her reputation as the successful girl who escaped to the big city and a career as a novelist.
In reality, she is a faltering ghostwriter for a cancelled teen series (hence the title). You often see her hunched over a laptop, grinding out lines of appalling dialogue stolen from local teenagers, while drinking. Drinking a lot, often at the same time as driving and always while pining over her lost youth. She looks like Sex and the City’s Carry Bradshaw after a crystal meth binge. We are treated to repeated shots of her waking up mid-afternoon and glugging Diet Coke to make the pain go away, before visiting the beauty parlour to smooth things out again.
In the rom com version of Young Adult, Buddy’s wife would be awful. She would practice yoga or make bad art. But here, she’s nice; she plays the drums in a (terrible) covers band, and does her best to juggle a life and a baby. Naturally, Mavis has nothing but contempt for her, and for everyone else in her “gross” hometown, who have all settled for the grinding mundanety of real life. Everyone except for Buddy – he’s dreamy – mostly because he reminds her of herself but younger.
Mavis acts like a poorly fleshed-out character from one of her books, even carrying a neglected dog in her handbag. She is the eponymous young adult: a grown woman still mentally residing in what she assumes to have been her glory days.
Patton Oswalt plays high school geek (another staple rom com cliche) Matt Freehauf, who Mavis doesn’t recognise until she realises he was the “hate crime guy” – so badly beaten at high school for being gay that he still walks with crutches and has a “bit of a nightmare downstairs”.
He and Theron become drinking buddies but it’s never really a friendship. Theron wants to get drunk and Freehauf gets to hang out with the prom queen. The same social hierarchy applies as when they were at school: as Freehauf puts it, “guys like me were born in love with women like you”. No mater how messed up Mavis gets, however unhappy and spiteful, she’ll always be out of sight on the social ladder. The sparky chemistry between the two is brilliant; that both were left off the Oscar nomination list is a travesty.
Theron’s performance is pitch perfect – there are plenty of laughs but it is all played against a backdrop of misery and spite. There are reasons for her behaviour – alcoholism, depression, overbearing parents – but they aren’t really put forward as excuses. Take these away and you’d still have a spoiled, obnoxious woman.
In fact, Theron is so perfectly unlikable that Young Adult can stray a little close to misogyny. She is the archetypal beautiful, unhinged woman intent on getting her manicured fingernails into your man, no matter what. Give her a few years and she’ll be Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.
It isn’t giving anything away to say that there is little redemption. This is a film where nobody changes; they end up just as awful as they started out. What a refreshing concept.
First published in City A.M.