The Daily Illini

‘Young Adult’ succeeds through writing, low point sympathies

By Carly Charles

“Young Adult,” despite its quips and quirk, is an overall painful viewing experience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, for in floating alongside Mavis Gary on her self-righteous path of destruction, we may in turn discover some less than beautiful truths about ourselves and those around us. And it is this facet to the film that saves it.

Mavis Gary, who is played by Charlize Theron, is a self-absorbed, depressed, alcoholic, 37-year-old ex-prom queen. On the side, she is a ghostwriter of kitschy, young adult novels. But sheer boredom and some perhaps clinically sociopathic traits soon lead the heroine on a journey from flashy and exciting Minneapolis back to her self-described “hick lake town,” the fictitious Mercury, Minn. In the beginning of the movie, the audience looks over Mavis’ shoulder as she opens an email boasting the proud if not somewhat obnoxious announcement of a baby — the baby of her ex-boyfriend and high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade, who is played by Patrick Wilson.

There’s been no indication thus far that Mavis has been lusting after her ex of many years past, yet just as quickly as he makes this small appearance in the plot, Mavis makes up her mind to pack a weekend duffel, journey in her red cooper mini to the hometown she hates, wreck some homes and win back the imprisoned-in-mundane-suburban-life Buddy Slade.

This idea will appear psychotic to anybody in possession of the most trace amount of stability and human compassion. Yet, Mavis proceeds with it accordingly and her sociopathic efforts generate subsequent, predictably horrific results. And the worst of it is that she pummels right on through them, oblivious to their consequences; that is, the Mavis from whom we depart after roughly 100 minutes of turmoil is no more changed and no less self-involved than the Mavis that reads baby announcement in the first ten minutes of the film. In literature, such lack of character development might be seen as a flaw. And to a skeptical audience, “Young Adult” might come across as a failure.

But the movie works, and for two reasons:

The tasteful quirk exhibited in Diablo Cody’s screenplay moves the plot forward where character development — or lack thereof — fails to do so.

The Mavis in all of us inevitably surfaces, whether or not we’d like to admit it, at some point in our viewing

Cody’s dialogue is very fast and effective in its ability to shape the personalities of the film’s leading and secondary characters. First off, the script molds the film into somewhat of a framed narrative; voiceovers of Mavis’ latest young adult novel accompany the film as she types. The plot of Mavis’ ghostwritten “Waverly High” humorously and ironically mirror events that have just occurred in her own life; ”Kendall,” the bratty, teenaged heroine of “Waverly High” is obviously a literary representation of herself.

Mavis’ bitchy yet clever musings portray her self-involvement; her bits are in turn followed with wry and sarcastic retorts from — in Mavis’ eyes — an unfortunate face from the past: the doughy, outcast and crippled Matt Freehauf, who is played by Patton Oswalt. The witty and sarcastic dialogue, like Mavis’ complete lack of empathy, remains a constant and driving force of the film: Mavis consistently says — or, more appropriately, thinks aloud — something ridiculous and inappropriate, and Matt follows with a dark and reasonable response. Ebert described the character of Matt Freehauf as a functional “cushion” for Mavis’ near unbelievable behaviors; he serves as a source of comic relief in this otherwise extremely dark film. Indeed, this analysis is quite accurate, and Freehauf’s cushioning is most effectively applied through Diablo Cody’s successful and “Juno”-esquely wry accomplishment of a screenplay.

Despite its lack of a climactic and otherwise essential turning point, the sympathy the viewer extracts from Mavis Gary allows “Young Adult” to be a success. And, indeed, it is this sympathy which in turn carries us through such a perpetually uncomfortable film. Mavis doesn’t have to undergo a conventional transformation, because we do it in place of her. The truth is that with each year we get older, and we are becoming second-grade versions of ourselves. Or perhaps we’ve always been this way and have simply failed to notice. We cringe when we watch Mavis screw up because we’ve seen ourselves and our friends go down eerily similar paths. But in the end, there is no use in wallowing over the little failures we partake of each day; in the end it’s better to make light of them, even if there is a detectable shudder beneath our benevolent laughter.

Carly is a sophomore in FAA. She can be reached at [email protected]

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