Young Adult represents the full flowering of screenwriter Diabo Cody’s talent. Her Oscar win notwithstanding, 2007’s Juno – though not without several strong points – was bogged down by its hipper than thou attitude. 2009’s Jennifer’s Body, a horror-comedy starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried, was a passably entertaining throwaway that lacked depth. With Young Adult, directed by Jason Reitman (who also directed Juno), Cody has crafted a deeply affecting character study about a woman approaching middle age while mired in debilitating self-loathing. If you bristled at the cutesy slang that saturated Juno, don’t let it scare you aware from this one.
Charlize Theron stars as Mavis Gary, a woman in her late 30s whose mid-life crisis has struck a little early. Mavis lives in Minneapolis, ghostwriting a series of teen lit novels called Waverly Prep. The once-popular series is coming to an end, leaving Mavis’ career prospects uncertain. A mass-emailed birth announcement from a former high school flame deeply troubles her. Unmarried, childless, and apparently friendless, the frustrated and disillusioned author returns to her suburban hometown, Mercury, Minnesota. She aims to win back Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), the father of the baby from the email. Fueled by a steady supply of booze, Mavis’ psyche unravels even further as she realizes how satisfied Buddy and his wife are with their lives.
That’s pretty much the gist of the simple plot. The wild card element arrives in the form of Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate of Mavis and Buddy. Mavis barely remembers Matt until she spots the crutch he walks with. During high school, Matt was viciously assaulted by a group of students who mistakenly thought he was gay. The attack left him with permanent sexual dysfunction and an awkward, slow gait. He now lives with his sister, making customized action figures in his bedroom. Mavis and Matt strike up an unlikely relationship. Matt sees the folly in Mavis’ plan to woo the happily married Buddy. Together the pair help each other understand their own flawed outlooks, at least temporarily.
The acting is uniformly excellent, from the leads right down to the smallest supporting roles. Theron works wonders with an outwardly unsympathetic character, digging deep to find Mavis’ wounded soul. She’s never been better. Oswalt continues to impress, expanding on the dramatic skills he displayed in Big Fan (2009). Patrick Wilson expertly conveys the good-natured everyman Buddy, stupefied by the advances of his former girlfriend. As a director, Jason Reitman continues to hone the observational, dry-eyed relatability that made Up in the Air one of the best films of 2009.