Posted by amybou on:
Who among us has not held on to a mix-tape from an ex-boyfriend or an ex-girlfriend from several technological revolutions ago? Perhaps even listened repeatedly to the soundtrack of romance past on the way to check into The Hampton Inn in a distant city to reclaim the old flame?
As someone who has done both of these things, I knew I’d like “Young Adult” from the preview. Perhaps more surprising, I knew that I’d like anti-heroine Mavis Gary despite all the interviews I’d heard that described the monstrous character played by Charlize Theron as inherently unlikeable, or “a psychotic prom queen bitch,” as one of Mavis’s former classmate puts it.
Yes, Mavis is an entitled out of touch aspiring home-wrecker, a mean girl who never quite grows up and decides, after receiving a photo in her inbox of her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade’s newborn baby, that she wants him back and that he is the solution to all her problems. So she leaves the random one-night-stand from the night before in her bed in Minneapolis, grabs her dog, packs a bag, and drives in sweatpants and a Hello Kitty t-shirt (one key reason I like her, the Hello Kitty shirt) to reclaim her former love and her former glory in her small hometown of Mercury, Minnesota.
The fact that Mavis is a writer—a ghost writer of a Young Adult series, but a writer nonetheless—also made me excited to see her on screen. (The voiceover narration of her YA novel-in-progress serves as a parallel narrative of her own delusions and self-deceptions.) The fact that Mavis isn’t one of those bewildered, befuddled, tripping-all-over-the-place heroines of romantic comedies also endeared her to me. Mavis is one cool customer—sneaking a dog into a hotel that actually allows dogs, admitting to a Macy’s saleswoman that she’s looking for an outfit to make an impression on the wife of her ex-boyfriend. As Diablo Cody said in an interview on NPR, “I noticed in so many conventional romantic comedies, the women are always getting flustered. She never is.”
As a ghost writer for a “Sweet Valley High”-reminiscent young adult series on its last leg, the fact that Mavis lives in a fantasy world is perhaps an occupational hazard. The fact that she has never quite grown up is also an implicit critique of a fantasy and youth-obsessed culture that casts women of a certain age and a certain disposition out of the narrative. Until, it seems, a trifecta of disillusioned mid-thirties anti-heroines appeared this past year in “Bridesmaids,” “Young Adult,” and “Bad Teacher”— tales of women who grew up in a culture that proclaimed they could have it all and yet whose professional, romantic, and interior lives haven’t turned out to be what they expected. Yet another reason I like Mavis—for the very fact that she made her way to the screen. Cody is right to point out that “I think we're more conditioned to accept a male curmudgeon or a male antihero.” (If only Mavis had a close girlfriend, I found myself thinking during the film, maybe things wouldn’t have become so dire. Where was Kristen Wigg when Mavis needed her?)
At first, I took Mavis to be the manifestation of a hyperbolic not-quite-real “what if” scenario—what if you took that glimmer of wondering what could have been with an ex to the extreme, and actually acted out the fantasy of getting him back? But the more Mavis unravels over the course of the film, the more I found myself seeing past her diabolical flaws. She confides to an unlikely friend, played by Patton Oswalt, that “I have depression” and tells her parents that “I think I’m an alcoholic,” only to be ignored by her listeners. A former prom queen voted “Best Hair” who is now driven to impulsively tear out chunks of her hair, Mavis can be seen as a cautionary tale of what can happen when someone’s most fulfilling years are during high school, but she is also a fully fleshed out and deeply troubled character—depressed, delusional, dissociative, perhaps not unlike one of the special education children that Buddy’s wife teaches how to understand emotions.
Does Mavis learn? Does she change? Perhaps not. But I think she realizes that she needs to change, even if the film ends with her like an addict who needs one more fix when Patton Oswalt’s fawning sister tells Mavis that “Everyone wishes that they could be like you” before Mavis heads back to city life, where she will finish the YA novel and kill off the character based on Buddy Slade—which seems like a bit of progress at least.
Alas, the film doesn’t end with Mavis charting her own course as a novelist, writing about adult characters she creates herself. Nor does she realize that some guy waiting in the wings who she initially disliked but now depends on to rescue her is actually her soul mate (such a trope in romantic comedies). But she does finish the project, sending the teen fantasy version of her ex to disappear at sea, and to me that signifies at least some measure of resolution. Perhaps it’s not redemptive, but I do think it seems far more realistic than if she and Patton Oswalt’s character had lived happily ever after.
Speaking of Patton Oswalt, I hope you’ll go see him in the “Virtuoso Award” tribute on Friday, February 3. Perhaps we can give him the Oscar snub party that he’s been tweeting about. I have my fingers crossed that Diablo Cody will join the “It Starts with the Script” panel on Saturday, January 28 and that local director Jason Reitman will appear on the Directors panel on Saturday, February 4. The industry panels are always my favorite film festival events and I’m looking forward to covering them for City 2.0.
What are you most excited to see this year?