Mavis (Charlize Theron) is floundering. She's 37, and lies around her Minneapolis apartment watching reality TV and not working on her latest "novel." (She ghostwrites young-adult fiction.) But an email announcing that her high school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson) has just had a baby spurs her to action: She will return to her small hometown and "rescue" Buddy from the family drudgery that she believes he's trapped in.
Young Adult -- the title refers not just to Mavis' occupation, but to her suspended emotional state -- depicts that popular trope of returning in triumph to the hick town once left in the dust. Except, in Jason Reitman's dark comedy, the joke's on self-absorbed Mavis, who is deluded about her importance, and more than a little twisted in her desire to lure Buddy away from his wife and baby. Indeed, Buddy's perfectly happy, and Mavis winds up throwing back bourbons with geeky, pudgy Matt (Patton Oswalt), another former classmate mired in the past.
For Young Adult, Reitman re-teams with screenwriter Diablo Cody, who wrote the zippy teen-pregnancy comedy Juno. That film was really a writer's fantasy, with its youthful protagonist dispensing acerbic bon mots and perfect put-downs. While Young Adult is less about showy dialogue, Mavis is still more of an acutely penned archetype than a realistic character. But Theron is good as Mavis, channeling the showy mannerisms of a bratty teen that look pathetic on a grown woman; Mavis is awful, but we're weirdly drawn to her.
Some believe you never really shake off the high school pecking order, no matter how well your adult life turns out to be. Indeed, I wonder if one's enjoyment -- if that's the right word -- of Mavis' disastrous trip home depends on whether you were once the homecoming queen, dreamed of being her or hated everything about her.
In some respects, Young Adult is the vicarious comeuppance the lesser folks fantasize will happen to the popular mean girls. But that satisfaction depends on cruelty, on the film's evisceration of Mavis, who we see is unhappy, but with whom we never quite sympathize.
Your TV is gonna try and sell you Young Adult as a wacky comedy, but it's a cringe-y dramedy, more of a character study than a plot-driven set of funny circumstances. Watching it is like biting into a candy and finding it sour instead of sweet. But if your tastes run toward well-observed but painful comedies, this could be just the treat you're looking for.
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt
Starts Fri., Dec. 16