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Monday, Dec. 12, 2011

Young Adult

Charlize Theron stars in Jason Reitman film

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With Juno, director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody conceived a teenage protagonist mature beyond her years. In their new collaboration, Young Adult, the protagonist, although approaching 40, has never really left high school behind. Mavis (Charlize Theron) may have moved from tiny Mercury, Minn., to Minneapolis years before, and achieved a dubious notoriety as the writer of “young adult” romance novels, but responsible adulthood has entirely eluded her.

Shallow as the stories she writes, Mavis is addicted to the idiocy of the Kardashians and other “reality” shows—not to mention booze. In her lack of fulfillment, she begins to fixate on the memory of her high-school sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). Her heart assures her that the dream of rekindling their romance is so real—they are meant for each other, even if they haven't spoken since Nirvana's final tour. Buddy's newborn child is just an inconvenience in her scheme, and his apparently happy marriage is surely suffocating him! Off Mavis sallies to Mercury, popping Buddy's 20-year-old mix tape into her cassette player and letting the '90s alt rock of their youth roar like an anthem of false hope.

The chasm between Mavis' delusion and the reality of Buddy, a regular guy well adjusted to small-town family life, is Young Adult's comic hook. Theron plays Mavis as a woman of resolute incomprehension, not only about Buddy but also her declining circumstances. She's still youthful, but the worry lines are visible. She drinks until her liver cries out for mercy. Even back home in Mercury, where Mavis is regarded as the townie who made it big, her books are in the clearance bin.

But there is more going on in the screenplay than a recurring joke at her expense. The other characters are also having difficulty moving on, starting with Mavis' parents, who have preserved her bedroom as a time capsule. One wonders about Buddy's wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), wearing a Breeders' T-shirt and drumming in a girl band, pounding out mediocre covers of '90s alt hits. Nostalgia is hard-wired in everyone. The film's tragic-comic figure, Matt (Patton Oswalt), was a classmate tortured and left for dead by gay bashers—even though he's not gay. Matt hobbles on a crutch, lives with his sister and paints action-hero models for amusement. He remembers wistfully that although Mavis' locker was next to his, she spent more time gazing into her heart-shaped mirror than glancing at him.

Buddy is a bit more than one-dimensional, even if Wilson depicts him superficially. Are we to laugh at him when he informs the skeptical Mavis that Mercury has come a long way—there's even a Chipotle opening in the mall! Buddy obviously doesn't share Mavis' romance-novel dreams, yet he doesn't exactly flinch when she presses a passionate kiss against his lips. Is there a particle of regret in him for the road not taken?

The screenplay gets all the pop-culture references perfect, from the rueful Replacements song on the jukebox at Woody's, still the town's best dive bar, to its gleaming family-friendly competitor, Champion O'Malley's, “Where Everyone's a Winner.” Young Adult doesn't exactly take sides in Mavis' argument against small-town folks, whom she castigates for being “satisfied with nothing.” They obviously have something, yet they sometimes seem to cast an envious glance at Mavis' apparently freer life. And after all, all of them, townies and big-city gal alike, seem unable to entirely escape from their high-school years.

Young Adult
opens Dec. 16.
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