There are two types of people in this world: those who refer to high school as the best time of their lives and those who don’t. If you’re the former and need a nice, solid kick in the butt, go see Young Adult, Jason Reitman‘s latest collaboration with writer Diablo Cody (posters scream the team that brought you “JUNO”! , as if to reassure you) and mentally prep yourself for some serious soul-searching to follow afterwards (sorry). If you’re the latter, go see Young Adult and mentally prep yourself to essentially be VERY GRATEFUL you’re not the former (just don’t go feeling too smug about it).
Regardless, go see it because, against all odds (and in the face of some pretty stiff competition), Young Adult is this season’s most heart wrenching movie which, somehow, squeezes more sadness, despair, life lessons never learned and general nihilism in 93 minutes than most dramas do in in almost twice as long a running time. Masking itself as a comedy, it also sneakily sucker punches your fragile emotional state, making its story and message that much more brilliant and poignant.
The film centers around Mavis Geary (a truly amazing, ALMOST formidable Charlize Theron), a theoretical grown-up (she’s playing her own age at 37). Still beautiful and very bitter, a young adult novel ghost-writer who never quite lived up to the promise of the high school glory days. Which, well, sucks for her.
At the very start of the movie, she discovers that her high-school sweetheart Buddy just had his first baby. And just like a wounded lion waiting for a reason to attack one last time, she decides, on a not-well-thought-out-whim, to pack up her little dog, her collection of age-inappropriate outfits, and her mile-long laundry list of self-destructive tendencies (binge drinking and self-mutilation chief among them) and hightail it to Mercury, Minnesota. Her goal? Free Buddy from the chains of marriage and child-rearing so they could both drive away into some imaginary, delusional sunset in her dirty little Mini Cooper.
Things are not going to work out. This is not a spoiler or anything, because if one thing is clear from the opening sequence in which Mavis sings along to her “MAD LOVE, Buddy” mixtape and replaying Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept” over and over again, it is just that. No way. No way in hell (or, worse, Mercury).
Once “back home,” she is faced with a slightly tired but overall happy Buddy (Patrick Wilson, comfortable in the role of a former jock that’s softening around the edges both emotionallyy and physically). And she can’t stand it. So much so that her coping mechanisms (denial and drinking) kick in full speed. In search of support (companionship? someone to feel superior to?) she forms an unlikely alliance with another school-mate Matt (Patton Oswalt), who wears a “Black Flag” t-shirt and has a million physical scars from the glory days Mavis is looking to recapture. From then on, it’s a bumpy ride that is both riveting and extremely hard to watch.
Everything about the execution of said ride is of the highest quality: Reitman is a master at the sour, sly comedy, so he is in his element here (remember “Up in The Air” and how you let yourself think it was going to be funny?). Diablo Cody’s expectedly but effectively thorny script is peppered with pop-culture references that make everyone in the movie seem like a believable person with likes and dislikes you knew in school, or met in a bar. The cast is ON FIRE (if Theron will crush your soul, Oswalt’s subtle performance with steal your heart). And the music, which is crucial to the emotional core of the movie (because, hey, that’s how it was in high school, too) is top notch in terms of 90s nostalgia: Lemonheads, Veruca Salt, and, since we ARE in Minessota, The Replacements are all peppered throughout for maximum effect.
Having said that, every minute makes you want to cower in your seat in a way you would during that special kind of a horrible first date: a date with the kind of guy that overshares and is so desperate for emotional support that he’s willing to bare their soul to a complete stranger. And it’s a dark soul: from Mavis’ delusions about a time when all was right with her world to Matt’s constant connection to how horrible those four years were, the baggage the characters carry could not fit into 10 Mini Coopers (those ARE oddly spacious, mind you). Sure, a bad date can make for a good story and a learning experience, but you still sometimes wish you were warned ahead of time. That’s what all I’m going to try and do here: warn you.
So here it comes: Young Adult is one of this year’s best movies. But you may not want to submit your fragile, slightly adult adult self to it.