Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) has made a living ghost writing a famous series of young adult books. When she learns that her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson) and his wife have just had a baby, she heads back to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota to try and win him back.
It is hard not to think of Bad Teacher when thinking of Young Adult. Charlize Theron’s character is just as drunk and underhand as Cameron Diaz’s was, but the difference is that Mavis Gary actually has heart… Deep, deep down. It is this heart that motivates Gary to pack up and head for home, but she shrouds her motivations in a sea of booze and selfishness. It is not until very late in the movie that we realise this character is suffering, and her self centred attempts to win back her high school boyfriend are not borne out of meanness, but out of a desperation to get back to the time in her life when she was actually happy.
Charlize Theron is on fantastic form as Mavis Gary, and is the epitome of the psycho prom queen that her peers describe her as. Even as the audience hates her – Gary really is that horrible person we all went to school with – we feel for her, this is a woman who is suffering. We can see this very early on from how obsessed she gets by an email and her childlike hopes that everything will be OK. As she drives from Minneapolis to Mercury, she listens back to a mixtape given to her by Buddy and fixates on one song – The Concept by Teenage Fanclub. This is a clear indication that this character is unable to let go of the past, and is fascinated by it. Gary is actually a smart character as well; she knows how to manipulate those around her, and in a moment of genius, she eaves drops on conversations around her as inspiration for her characters.
Patton Oswalt as Matt, a high school peer of Mavis’s who was savagely beaten as she celebrated the height of her popularity, forms the emotional heart of the film. Matt is bitter and sarcastic, but he is real and surprisingly normal. He is the one who is Mavis’s sounding board, and the one who makes her realise that she may need to change her ways – before his sister undoes any good he has done. Patrick Wilson is the typical confused father who is thrown into a moment of chaos when his ex rolls in to town; a moment that Mavis seizes and holds on to for dear life.
Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody have created a character that we would love to hate, if we didn’t relate to her so much. Mavis is lost and set adrift in a world where everyone has everything sorted out. It would be easy for the movie to patronise it’s lead character, but by treating her honestly, the movie extends sympathy to this character and her overwhelmingly selfish behaviour.
The only complaint could be that Young Adult could have been told in a shorter movie; the plot is rather short and easily tied up, but it is the learning journey that Mavis goes on, which makes the movie so interesting. Charlize Theron is on great form as a shattered woman trying to find where she belongs and Patton Oswalt is dry, funny and very sweet as the unlikely friendship blossoms between them.