(Jason Reitman, 2011)
Blessed with a Diablo Cody screenplay which is sporadically breathtaking in its ferocity, Young Adult is a beautifully sustained and focused character study. The character at its centre is Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a 37 year old writer ("author" she insists) of a series of Young Adult novels set in High School who lives what is established is an empty and unrewarding single life in Minneapolis. Divorced and with only her dog for company as she completes the final novel in the cancelled series, Mavis becomes fixated on her high-school flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson in another of his series of finely shaded studies of modern masculinity), who has just had a baby with his wife. She returns to her loathed hometown of Mercury, Minneasota, planning to win Buddy back. There she runs into Matt (Patton Oswalt), a self-described "fat geek"who she ignored throughout High School. She only remembers him when she realises he is the "hatecrime guy", referring to an incident where he was beaten with crowbars by some jocks who thought he was gay, breaking his legs and mangling his penis, leaving him with a limp and a cane for life. Now, as a felow outcast, they have common ground, and she confesses her plans to him as she attempts to woo Buddy away from his wife and infant daughter.
Theron is fantastic as Mavis, a truly awful figure who sees her own life through the prism of High School, both her writing and history twisted in her psyche. We hear snatches of her narrative as she writes, its symbiotic relationship with her own life growing as everything becomes more involved and disturbed. Mavis, the "psychotic prom queen bitch" is monumentally selfish, unable to censor herself, hilariously vain, and caught up in a massive self-deception, intent on a fantasy of a life with Buddy, her one true love. She shows no vulnerability whatsoever until the last act, when reality crashes into her life at a (somewhat contrived) social gathering, in the kind of scene that provides a climax of sorts but would never ever happen in reality.
The film gets away with that because Cody and director Reitman have done such an impressive job establishing these characters and the world of Mercury in all its safe, retail-park (in)glory. Buddy is happy in his regular, small life, happy with his sports bar and job in ad sales, while Mavis lies about her own success. The opening ten minutes, following Mavis through her days in Minneapolis, are curiously, perfectly flat - the light is grey and harsh, there is no music, only the dim jabber of the reality tv she keeps on in the background. As soon as she leaves for Mercury, her teen dream reawakened, Teenage Fanclub burst onto the soundtrack, and that town, for all its dull safeness, is portrayed with a warmth and humanity absent from the scenes of the big city. The other characters feel just as well-imagined and true as Mavis and her old boyfriend. Oswalt's Matt is resigned to his life but shows flashes of bitterness, and Mavis' parents offer a glimpse into the banality of her upbringing.
Reitman's direction is nicely judged throughout, sensitive to mood and character interplay, but with a good sense of comic timing too.
But really this is Theron's show, and she makes Mavis a fascinating, flawed monster, all too aware of her own beauty but incapable of enjoying it, or anything. That would be difficult to bear if the film weren't so darkly funny, but it is full of blistering one-liners and quietly agonising social embarrassment, and Theron plays it all with a conviction which only makes it funnier.