Audience expectations were high for Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s – the same director/writer partnership responsible for 2007’s Juno – second collaborative effort: Young Adult. While Juno focused directly on young people, Young Adult‘s central character is a 37-year-old woman – albeit one who hasn’t progressed an awful lot since high school. Charlize Theron stars as Mavis Gary, the author of a series of novels aimed at teenagers, who journeys back to her hometown in an attempt to rekindle a romance with her old high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), shortly after discovering that his wife has just given birth to a child.
Mavis is a dreamer, unable to even consider the possibility that Buddy might not be interested in her after all this time. Her naivety, immaturity and fixation on appearances mirror the teenage characters who she creates in her own stories. As the narrative develops we discover that Mavis was always the popular girl, and that the monotony of her adult life fails to match up to her memories of high school. The opening sequence of the film demonstrates this – we see that her life lacks any kind of structure; she spends her day lazing around, procrastinating, and watching TV in her pleasant but sterile-looking apartment. Unwilling to move on and accept the reality of adult life, Mavis seeks out the drama and excitement that she sees in the characters of her novels and in the reality TV programmes that she watches. And what better way to do this than to try to ruin somebody else’s marriage? Although the actions that Mavis takes are ridiculous, she is still a relatable character in many ways. Her persona reflects the perceived need to be beautiful and adored by men that is frequently thrust upon women in our society. It is also possible to sympathise with that ever-depressing feeling of realising that an ex has moved on, even though Mavis’ case is an extremely exaggerated example of this.
While back home, Mavis bumps in to Matt (Patton Oswalt) who instantly recognises her from high school while she fails to remember anything about him. Mavis is so completely wrapped up in her own romantic drama that she fails to pay any attention to Matt’s numerous problems. Matt epitomizes the classic geek character from high school novels and films – he lives at home with his sister, has physical problems as well as trouble with women, and collects Star Wars figurines. He realises how bitchy and horrible the beautiful popular girl is, but can’t help but adore her anyway as everybody else does. In a typical romantic-comedy, Mavis would ultimately realise that Matt is the real guy for her and they’d skip off into the sunset together. In some ways, this convention almost fits. Matt and Mavis clearly have great chemistry, but she fails to realise this and seeks his company mostly due to her own feelings of desperation. Matt, like Mavis, is still holding on to the memory of high school, but while she looks back on it as an idyllic time, he sees it as the root of all his problems. Even some of the minor characters in the film demonstrate that they are still concerned with high school drama – Beth’s band-mates all remember Mavis and hold a grudge against her, calling her a ‘psychotic bitch'; while Matt’s sister looks up to Mavis and is overly worried about saying something she won’t agree with, all because she wants to be liked by the popular girl.
The film’s narrative is structured around the novel that Mavis is writing, using sections of the book as a voiceover that also overlaps with events in Mavis’ life. This provides us with an insight into Mavis’ wishes while showing us that she still has an immature teenage mentality regarding relationships. Her naivety is perfectly demonstrated in one scene where she is depicted getting ready to go and meet Buddy; we see shots of her doing her hair and make-up in the mirror, narrated by a passage in her book talking about how ‘perfect’ and ‘effortlessly beautiful’ the protagonist is. The film ends on a note of ambiguity, Mavis seems to realise that she won’t win over Buddy and also that she needs to change her outlook on life, but Matt’s sister then appears to talk her round. Therefore the viewer is left feeling unsure about what Mavis intends to do with her life once the film has come to its close. At the end of her novel, Mavis kills off the boy who the main character was pursuing, which suggests that she still possesses a slightly immature approach to the situation – she isn’t prepared to simply let him be happy without her. However, the protagonist in the novel apparently leaves high school feeling positive and excited to move on in to adult life, so we can only hope that Mavis chooses to take up the same lesson.
Like Juno, this film has also been accused of ultimately reinforcing conservative ideals and family values despite its initially unconventional appearance. While Juno shocked viewers with its open depiction of teenage pregnancy, it still contains pro-life sentiments and notions of the traditional two-parent family as an ideal. Young Adult could be said to contain similar sentiments – although I don’t want to give too much away, the film seems to suggest towards the end that there is something about having a child that will make a woman feel complete, and that this completeness is not present without a child. It has also been argued that Mavis serves as a figure for married women to project their fears on to, and that her eventual shame and ridicule act as a punishment for these acts. Whether you agree with this interpretation or not, Young Adult is one film from 2011 that has been significantly overlooked, and the fantastic performances from Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt deserve far more recognition than they have received.