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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Young Adult (2011)

This article was originally published on Political Film on Thursday, January 12, 2012:

When She Grows Up, She’s Going to Be Happy

by Jennifer Epps
The current print ad for Diablo Cody’s new comedy Young Adult shows Charlize Theron sporting uncombed hair and loungewear pajamas in an attempt to make her look disheveled and haggard – though this is of course an impossible task. It also bears a tag line meant to encapsulate the protagonist, Mavis Gary: “Everyone grows old. Not everyone grows up.” (The tag line in the trailer actually said, “Everyone grows older”, but some catty person in the publicity department seems to have corrupted it.) Now, Theron’s character is only 37. Is it even necessary to ask: if the main character were male, would anyone even think to call him old at 37? Or would the terminology be more along the lines of “immature,” “big kid”, “carefree,” or perhaps even “eligible bachelor”?
It should be noted, however, that this publicity does not accurately reflect the tone of the film. The title is our first clue that the subject of the film is prolonged adolescence: Young Adult refers to the category of fiction Mavis writes – for readers ranging from 14 to 21 – but it is also the way she sees herself. She cherishes freedom and spontaneity. She drinks daily and won’t eat properly. She is single in Minneapolis, lives in a high-rise apartment, and has few responsibilities. She carries a Pomeranian in her handbag, but neglects him and shows little affection for him. She is an expert at applying make-up, hair extensions, bra-stuffers, and a stunning wardrobe. She loves to get mani-pedis. She has pink accessories and Japanese kitsch-juvenilia. Her TV – even in hotel rooms – seems set on a default channel with nothing but programming about emotive young women who dream of being admired beauties. (Is there a Princess Channel?)
And Mavis is played, hilariously unrepentantly, by sharp-eyed Charlize Theron. This is no passive wallflower or ditzy elfin heroine we’ve seen many other actresses play in ‘chick flicks’. Instead, when an email announces the arrival of a baby to her now-married ex, she can’t let go of the one who got away. She jumps into her car for her small Minnesota home town without either saying goodbye to her date on the bed, or dressing. (Hence the casual attire of the movie’s poster.)

In high school, Mavis was envied by the girls and admired from afar by the boys – or, in the case of some lucky jocks, from very close indeed. Her problem is she never quite learned any other roles. She has never really stopped thinking like a prom queen. This makes her perfect for ghostwriting a long series of generic YA novels, but it doesn’t help her deal with reality. She is so busy fantasizing, scheming, and beautifying herself, she isn’t actually present – doesn’t notice, for instance, that her inarticulate, parochial ex (an unshaven Patrick Wilson) would not be a great match for her, even if he were available. She doesn’t even see him: she just sees the couple she wants to be.
This film has little interest in moments of chemistry between Mavis and Buddy, or in the rom-com scenario we may be led to expect. It has more interest in her struggle, and how her friendship grows with misfit Matt, the local Quasimodo who gives her sanctuary. (Drily played by Patton Oswalt, Matt is a short, overweight, fanboy who was attacked and almost killed in high school by homophobic jocks who believed he was gay.)
Yet what Young Adult has the most interest in is a character study of Mavis Gary.

She has actually been married – not to Buddy – and divorced as well. She feels like a failure, and her career is on a downward slide. She seems to have no close female friends, if we are to judge from the strained and superficial encounter between her and a gal pal early on, and she has no rapport with her parents – she checks into a hotel room in her home town without even thinking to tell them she’s back. (When she does go visit, we can see why. Her parents have instant denial reflexes about anything unpleasant, even when she does try to confide in them. There’s no there there.)
Though at first she comes off as the self-satisfied cheerleading-captain type we’re used to seeing, it soon becomes clear that she’s actually a complex character. The filmmakers do not delight in bringing ‘the smug, mean girl’ down a peg. She already is down, many pegs, when the movie starts. What’s quite a coup is that Young Adultcan create empathy for a hard-drinker who hates babies, won’t walk her dog, thinks ‘home-wrecker’ is a simple necessity of life, and mocks disability. (It’s not a crass, bad-taste comedy. It’s very humane; we feel for both her and her victims along the way.) And better yet, the film progresses from the humor of her thoughtlessness and delusions to something more philosophical, something more lingering: her inexplicable inability to figure out how to be happy.
Getting blotto nightly, passing out on the couch with the TV on, avoiding work on her novel as well as her editor’s phone calls, and obsessing over how to steal back a married man — this is an unusual leading role for a woman. While we’ve seen male anti-heroes wasting their lives on booze and procrastination before, especially in movies by or about Hunter S. Thompson, when screwed-up female drunks are on film, they are usually only someone’s neglectful mother — the cause of the protagonist’s problems, not the protagonist herself. Fortunately, as Theron’s track record already shows, when given quality material, she delivers – her seemingly effortless comedic timing has already garnered Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, and Satellite Award nominations.
I do realize that literature and the performing arts have given us plenty of neurotic women. As in too many to do us any favors. But one reason they’re unhelpful is that men generally write them – memoirs of desirable but loopy women who break young men’s hearts, for instance. (Sometimes the woman is so loopy it’s a thriller, and she’s life-threatening. Or she’s suicidal – then it’s a drama.) Still, it would avail us nothing to demand that women in fiction always be centered, focused feminists who serve as role models; we do need to see characters face real problems, no matter what their gender. And Mavis is not, after all, complete fiction. She is the kind of woman Naomi Wolf worried in The Beauty Myth is likely to be the most brainwashed and the most deeply affected by cultural standards of female beauty – i.e. the kind of woman who meets them.
I believe screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman are taking aim at Mavis’ fantasy world and the values passed onto teen girls. Cody herself recently completed a commission to adapt the Sweet Valley High young adult novels for film. Like the invented Waverly series Mavis contributes to, SVH is a series of over 150 ghostwritten paperbacks about popular teenaged girls. The experience obviously fed Cody’s characterization of Mavis, who has a complicated relationship with her career: it encourages her arrested development, but it also distinguishes her from the less ambitious and creative people she grew up with in her small town.
That this is a reunion project for the makers of Juno, the wise-cracking Oscar-winning indie about a self-possessed teen with her own ideas about sex and relationships, should be evidence enough that Young Adult’s intentions towards Mavis are honorable. But to help bring it home, Cody and Reitman’s new film ends with “When We Grow Up” from the 1970’s feminist classic Free to Be…You and Me (a Ms. Foundation book, album, and TV special spearheaded by Marlo Thomas). Mavis’ growth is minor compared to rom-com tropes, and subtler, but it goes deeper. So, as the credits roll, we hear Diana Ross singing a children’s song about best friends, a girl and a boy, thinking about their futures and whether their genders will shape those futures. It’s a sweet song that still moves me.
“When I grow up, I’m gonna be happy and do what I like to do,
Like making noise and making faces and making friends like you.
And when we grow up, do you think we’ll see
That I’m still like you and you’re still like me?
I might be pretty; you might grow tall.
But we don’t have to change at all.”
Young Adult does not tie the story up with a bow the way Juno did. It is more willing to leave nagging questions unresolved. In short, Young Adult is more mature.

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