HALFTIME REPORT: Young Adult (2011)

With Halftime Report, your good friends at SportsAlcohol.com revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

Pop culture is both an immensely subjective and personal obsession. It can be difficult not to feel slighted when an artist whose work you’ve enjoyed goes in an unexpected direction. Perhaps no filmmaker experienced such an abrupt turnaround in the past few years as Jason Reitman, whose sardonic, satirical early work has recently given way to laughably out-of-touch melodrama, at least according to a lot of film critics, sometimes validating any lingering doubts they held over his earlier, snappier movies. I’ve yet to see either Labor Day or Men, Women and Children (and doubt I will anytime soon) but I remembered his 2011 feature Young Adult with great fondness and was curious to revisit it in light of Reitman’s sudden fall from grace.

Even in this age when unlikeable characters are popular thinkpiece subjects, Young Adult‘s Mavis Gary (played without an ounce of vanity by Charlize Theron) remains bracingly caustic. I was not popular in high school but the film was still primed to play on my greatest fears about myself as someone who moved away from a small town and still has the occasional bout of unwarranted contempt and pity for those who stayed behind. More often than I care to admit, I’ve flippantly told someone I can’t imagine what it’d be like if I still lived there, as Mavis does early in the film. “Yeah,” her friend says flatly, and unconvincingly. “We’re lucky we got out. We have lives.” In case the opening scenes didn’t make it clear, the credits drive the point home elegantly: Mavis keeps rewinding the high school mixtape her then-boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) made her back in the day, to play “The Concept” by Teenage Fanclub over and over. This woman is stuck in a past she believes is still her present.

Mavis, who ghostwrites for a Sweet Valley High-style book series, is on a mission to get back Buddy, now married and a new father. Starting with waking up hungover and interpreting an invitation to a baby shower as a cry for help, Mavis proves herself a delusional wreck: alcoholic, depressed, interacting with the world through a thin veil of disdain, unaware, or uncaring, that everyone can see right through it. In scene after scene the script (by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody) mines this disconnect for discomfort comedy of a kind not often seen in American film, particularly with a female character as the catalyst. For a movie with a protagonist so ostensibly shallow, Young Adult is surprisingly complex, especially when it comes to the behaviors and influences that trap us in destructive cycles. As the film goes on it becomes clear that Mavis is painfully conscious of her own shortcomings. “Stand up for yourself,” she upbraids her ex’s wife in the climactic scene. “Why are you covering for me?” And yet it only takes one conversation with a starry-eyed local to spur her back on her previous path — at least temporarily. “Life, here I come,” the closing narration says. But it’s the image of Mavis’s busted car fender that lingers. Even if Reitman is done with such damningly ironic comedies, at least Young Adult endures.