This opening sequence rings so true, feels drawn from the experience of a working writer and embellished (maybe) for her character. We know what kind of person Mavis is right away, and even if we didn’t, it’s made clear when she opens a mass email from her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) and his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) announcing the birth of their first child. She decides that her long-ago ex must be miserable. Knowing that she can technically work from anywhere, she packs a bag and leaves Minneapolis for her small hometown, determined to fix her life by getting back with her high school boyfriend.
Once back in town, she’s acutely reminded of all the reasons why she needed to escape in the first place. Her parents (Jill Eikenberry and Richard Bekins) still hang a picture of her ex-husband on the wall. Her old boyfriend is far from miserable. Some of her old high school acquaintances view the return of the “psycho prom queen bitch” (their words) with skepticism. And the only old classmate who will actually talk with her, the only one she can actually open up to, is the bullied, beaten, nerd (Patton Oswalt) who now lives a quiet, simple life, his only regular source of social interaction his sweet sister (Collette Wolfe).
The film walks a tricky line; Mavis is a monstrous social creature and yet oddly sympathetic as well. (It also may be a film covertly, or maybe even not so covertly, about an alcoholic, a manic-depressive, or both). She feels her life entering a dead end, and that’s painful, but the way she awkwardly grasps at the last remaining connections to the seemingly happy, popular, teenage girl she once was is sad, pathetic, and horrifying in a compelling, even occasionally endearing, way. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll realize that as she got older, she never really matured. The movie’s smart enough to know that such a shift may take time, more time than the narrative of the film allows, but it’s a film open ever so slightly to the possibility of change.
The director here is Jason Reitman. His adeptness with juggling ensembles can certainly be felt in the uniformly excellent cast who breathe life into the clever script. Reitman collaborated with Cody previously on Juno, a film of too-cute quirkiness and affectations that nonetheless gained some amount of very real charm and emotional power with a sure directorial hand, even if it’s perhaps one of too-slick shagginess, and an impressive cast. Young Adult, on the other hand, is a deconstruction of affectations and the characters, though less appealing, are no less relatable, which is why the film feels so much more savage in its satirical aims.
It’s the anti-Juno. In that film, the pregnant-teen protagonist’s outsider persona is embraced by those who love her; the cutting quips in her narration can be poisoned-dart punchlines. Here, Mavis is constantly either preparing to go out, placing the final touches on her persona, or dressing down in a casual carelessness when she knows she’ll be alone. She uses her outsider persona as a shield, behind which she fires harsh, judgmental potshots. She wants to make a connection with someone, anyone, but at the same time seems scared to try. Her whiplash shifts between harshly disparaging and cringingly needy are emotional time bombs.
The film itself strikes a nice ambivalent tone. Sometimes – okay, rarely – Mavis makes some kind of sense; we want to root for her. But her apparent obliviousness to her baseline social discomfort is so excruciating. By the time the film starts to slowly, painfully let the air leak out of her self-centered worldview, the fun starts to go with it. By the end, I was more interested the entertained, but Mavis Gary remained one of the most fascinating characters of 2011.