That Sweet Ugliness: A Review of Young Adult

Reviewed in this essay: Young Adult, written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman. Starring Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson and Patton Oswalt. Running Time: 94 minutes. Playing in secondary run at select theatres.

Charlize Theron in Young Adult.

Amidst a winter season packed to the brim with flashy 3D eye candy (Tintin) and mushy-headed pulp (War Horse), it’s understandable that moviegoers would despair at not finding something remotely close to revealing the complexity of real, middle-class life at their local cineplex. Rejoice, then, to discover Jason’s Reitman’s Young Adult, whose jagged poignancy hits square in the mouth with the grimy feel of the quotidian. Although the film is being released by Paramount Pictures, and is headlined by star Charlize Theron, it plays indy to the core.

Indeed, the film is remarkable precisely because of its modest ambition: it wants to do nothing more than let us revel in the emotional free-fall of its main character, divorced fiction writer Mavis Gary, played with bare courage by Theron in what amounts to her best performance since her Oscar-winning turn in Monster. Bored by a deadening bourgeois existence in Minneapolis, Mavis hatches a plan to return to the small Minnesota town she grew up in to win back her high school sweetheart Buddy. The only problem is that Buddy seems genuinely content, blessed with all that Mavis lacks: a happy marriage, a small child and an assured sense of place within his community.

While Reitman attempts to eek out some measure of dramatic tension from this plot—will Buddy leave his wife?—it never amounts to more than a slight sizzle. And why should it be otherwise? Daubed in swirls of powdery makeup and decked in faux-chic cocktail wear, Mavis storms about her hometown intent on seductive destruction, while Theron invests each measured tick and plastic smile with a volatile mix of pride, anger and bewilderment. Rarely has a character so lost seemed so self-assured, and Theron plumbs this aching denial masterfully. As the full measure of how completely Buddy has moved on from high school becomes clear, Mavis is left to free-fall. Watching her mask of hollow confidence peel back, with a glimpse at the destructive rage beneath, is nothing short of mesmerizing.

The scenario allows Reitman to return to the thematic paradox—our antipathy towards, yet deep-seated longing for, the responsibilities of adult life—that have made his films amongst the most impressive of the last decade of American cinema. And while Young Adult may not possess the sly grandeur of Up in the Air, nor the rollicking nihilism of Thank You for Smoking, it allows Reitman to show us yet another character who can’t face the terror that seems to engulf their very being. If kids, family, and bourgeois comfort can’t provide Mavis with meaning and direction, what can? Ultimately, she comes to stand as a poignant symbol for a society defined by a psychic crisis, a collective inability to find happiness, which it can barely acknowledge nonetheless resolve. And that, finally, is the most haunting aspect of Reitman’s film: Mavis’ sweet ugliness is, we are forced to acknowledge, our own.

About the author

Mark McConaghy

A doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto, Mark McConaghy researches aesthetics, politics, and the dynamics of cultural change. He is co-editor of The Fourteenth Floor, a collaborative space for cultural and political critique.

By Mark McConaghy