Who knows if director Jason Reitman and/or screenwriter Diablo Cody fell into the category of high school outcasts, but their newest film, Young Adult, sure feels like revenge. It does dig a little deeper than that but, in the end, you just can’t help but find yourself secretly hoping all the pretty bullies you hated in high school ended up this way.
And that’s the thing about Young Adult: it doesn’t even pretend to be anything but a condemnation of the high school class system and channels its dark comedy through the schadenfreude of audience members who root for the downfall of the arrogant, selfish and mean former prom queen, played to perfection by Charlize Theron. Theron plays Mavis, a broken-down, pathetic and completely oblivious woman who still believes she’s the young, beautiful and perfect girl she was in high school, despite now being 37, divorced, alone and on a downward spiral of a career.
This character could easily be made out to be a sympathetic one, easy to feel sorry for because she’s truly hit rock bottom, but screenwriter Cody will have none of that. There’s no nostalgic filter at play here as she creates Mavis to be an utterly soulless shell of a person with no hope of redemption. Which is what makes watching this train wreck so much fun. This is black comedy at its best, the kind that makes you shift in your seat as you stifle your belly laugh.
Theron is heavenly casting, a gorgeous woman who is totally believable as someone who owned high school, but her true brilliance is in the details of this character who is broken beyond recognition. She delivers a ferocious, balls-out performance that is as brave as it is cunning.
Patton Oswalt is equally captivating as a former high school classmate whom Mavis runs into when she returns to her hometown to win back her high school boyfriend, despite the fact that he is happily married with a new baby. Oswalt is the emotional center of the film and delivers a deep and intimate performance that contrasts nicely with Theron’s distant ice queen. The two have interesting chemistry onscreen, certainly a pair you’d never expect to see connect—and that’s what gives Young Adult its redemption.
This film drowns in bitterness and a cynicism for life that only Cody can make interesting and humorous. But while Cody is great at character and dialogue, she lacks a true ability to craft structure, and Young Adult suffers from a story that never gets off the ground. It’s like taking a ride with someone who loves to look around and talk about the scenery, but if you’re looking to actually go somewhere, you’re in the wrong car. In the end, Young Adult has the same problem as its main character: it never quite matures.