The Quiet, Dark Comedy of Young Adult
Young Adult is not only one of the best comedic films of the year, but one of the best films of the year. It’s about time comedic performances can be considered brilliant performances.
It’s wonderfully sublime, hilarious, dark and poignant, made possible by the perfect combination of filmmakers, writers, and actors. The plot is quite simple — a recently divorced, former popular prom queen Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is now making a living ghostwriting a series of young adult novels. After her high school boyfriend sends her pictures of their newborn baby, Mavis decides the only time she was happy was with him, so she returns to her small hometown of Mercury, Minnesota to reclaim her past love. She reunites with former classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt) who becomes her confidant and friend. The film doesn’t necessarily succeed because of the story as a whole, but rather the simple actions and choices of the characters, their use of comedy to protect their vulnerability, and the depiction of their moments alone.
It’s impossible for not to compare it to 2007’s little-indie-film-that-could Juno, because Young Adult is the second collaboration of director Jason Reitman screenwriter Diablo Cody. In every way that Juno had forced quirkiness, Young Adult has more depth of character and emotional stakes. It uses the age-old writing advice of “show, don’t tell.” We are supposed to know that Juno is quirky because she has a hamburger phone (and literally says “I’m talking to you on a Hamburger phone”) and makes cracks like a teenage Don Rickles. We know that Young Adult’s protagonist Mavis is quirky because the viewer sees her daily rituals and solo behaviors; Mavis’ public persona is that she is confident and beautiful. However, the audience is with her through every step of her laborious process of applying makeup, choosing outfits, and attaching her hair extensions. The minutia of Mavis’ day is shown intentionally inform that her confidence takes a lot of work. I found the quiet solo scenes fascinating and not at all trivial, speaking volumes more than any dialogue that could have been written about it.
Mavis is supposedly living the dream as a writer living in the big city (in this case, Minneapolis, or the “Minne-apple” as the unhip suburbans call it). Is Mavis really as happy as she is trying to convince herself she is? Again, instead of being hand-fed a character’s sense of her success, we are shown a lot of Mavis holed up in her messy apartment, struggling with writer’s block, drinking soda from the two-liter bottle, and falling asleep while watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians in the middle of the day. Her situation is both funny and sad, the best kind of comedy.
Theron, to my surprise, pulls off the comedic part of the role. Not in broad, physical comedy, but in the sublime way of her own delusion and egotism. Theron will always be beautiful, and even though she is more natural here, it is hard to not notice her physical presence. There’s no need to ugly her up Aileen-Warnos-style, but the simple lack of heavy makeup or glamour does make her seem more real, like the bitchy popular girl you know, not a glamorous movie star. Her sheer egotism and sardonic regard for everyone she encounters in Mercury is part of her charm, even though it is condescending. It takes a good film to make the audience root for a morally ambiguous protagonist.
I have yet to mention the other 50% of why this movie succeeds: Patton Oswalt as Matt, Mavis’ former unpopular classmate that she meets on her first day back in Mercury. Matt has a tragic back story of his own: an encounter with of violent, physical bullying has left him with a permanent injury to his legs and to his self-esteem as an adult. Just like Mavis, he has never really gotten over high school, and just like Mavis, he hides his pain behind snark and ridicule; isn’t that what comedy is best used for?