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Review: Young Adult (2011)

Young Adult (2011)

Directed by: Jason Reitman

Premise: A middle aged woman (Charlize Theron) discovers that her high school crush and his wife have had a baby. She returns to her hometown with plans to break up the marriage and claim him for her own.

What Works: Young Adult reteams screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, who had previously collaborated on the 2007 sleeper hit Juno. The two are a good match since many of Reitman’s films, such as Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air, are about isolated or socially inept people trying to form a connection and Cody’s scripts, such as Jennifer’s Body and United States of Tara, often focus on female characters who struggle with societal gender expectations and dysfunctional domesticity. Those issues all come to play in Young Adult and the film is more mature and challenging than any other feature film project that Cody and Reitman have worked on. The environments in this film have an authentic, lived-in quality, the characters are appropriately ragged from experience, and it shows in the performances by the actors. Charlize Theron is terrific as Mavis; she is a horrible person yet entirely watchable. This is due in part to the methods used to shoot the film which pick up on subtle gestures and other nonverbal cues, giving added meaning to otherwise mundane actions. Although the film has Cody’s characteristically acerbic dialogue, it is parceled out a little more judiciously in this film than in Juno and so it enhances the film rather than coming across as a storytelling crutch to cover for a lack of depth. In fact, one of the more outstanding qualities of Young Adult is that it touches a contemporary cultural button in a way few films released in 2011 have. This film is a prescient story about a woman in a mid-life crisis who is enraptured in a lifestyle of reality television, fast food, and nostalgia and Young Adult’s portrayal of adult adolescence taken to an extreme makes this film not only an interesting character study but an indictment of a culture more connected to Facebook than to the world around them.

What Doesn’t: Young Adult is being marketed as an edgy but feel-good holiday comedy. It isn’t. Although Young Adult has a fair share of humor, the overall tone of this film is dark and it deals with some challenging issues like substance abuse, midlife crises, and narcissistic personality disorder. That’s not a flaw of the film but viewers should realize what they are getting into. The laughs of Young Adult are reactionary; viewers will find themselves giggling uncomfortably at the main character’s audacity and awfulness but never with her. That Young Adult makes its protagonist such a difficult person and does not take predictable routes toward reconciliation is brave on the part of the filmmakers but it is also likely to be a stumbling block for viewers expecting the glibness and sweetness that attracted so many people to Juno. And taken for what it is, rather than what viewers might anticipate, Young Adult does have some significant problems. Like many character studies, the film is slow moving and has very minimal plotting. The ending is particularly troubling; it is unclear if Mavis has learned anything from the whole debacle. The resolution, or lack of one, is consistent with the tone of the film, but it also makes the story less satisfying for the viewer.

Bottom Line: Young Adult is a very good film. It aspires to pictures like A Woman Under the Influence or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and although Young Adult does not quite make it to that level of excellence, it is a relevant and provocative film with a terrific performance by Charlize Theron.

Episode: #369 (December 25, 2011)