The Huffington Post asked if I'd like to go along to view and consider the new film, Young Adult. They did this because Young Adult is about an author of young adult books, and I am a young adult author.
This is not, as I understand it, standard review procedure. Cops are not sent to review cop movies. Doctors are not sent to review medical dramas. Wizards are not sent to see Harry Potter, nor vampires and their companions to Twilight. But the Huffington Post asked me if I'd like to review the movie, and by jiminy, I am going to review it.
The previews and the posters suggested a light rom-com. The basic premise is this: Mavis Gary, 37, is a divorced writer of a series of young adult novels (think Sweet Valley High or similar). She lives in Minneapolis, where she leads a singleton existence of drinking, poor nutrition, television watching, and one night stands. After receiving an email that announces the birth of a child to high school flame Buddy Slade, she decides to return to her hometown, catch up with Buddy, and win him back. That Buddy is now married with a child is irrelevant. She'll make it happen. Rom com, right?
I was in no way prepared for what I got.
I feel certain many reviews will classify Mavis Gary as "an unlikable protagonist." This is true. But there is a bit more to it than that. Mavis Gary is mentally ill. This is not an interpretation on my part--everyone in the movie seems to know it, including Mavis. Mavis suffers from depression, alcoholism, and trichotillomania (obsessive hair pulling).
The movie chronicles a total break from reality. She sets out from Minneapolis, leaving a one night stand in bed, with no plan. And then... she stalks Buddy. Properly stalks, like a stalker. She becomes delusional, believing that Buddy is feeling what she is feeling. She drinks until she passes out every night. She crashes her car. She neglects her dog. She sits in front of Buddy's house. She orders what he used to drink in high school. She spends all of her time preparing for their "dates" which aren't dates at all.
Mavis is incapable of empathy. When Matt (Patton Oswalt) explains how he was taken out into the woods behind the school and brutally beaten by her old high school friends (or, the guys she used to give blow jobs to at lunch, as he describes them), she stares blankly. The beating damaged his head, groin and legs, and was so vicious it left him permanently disabled. It destroyed his life. Mavis is glassy eyed and remembers only the fun in the woods. The story seems to bore her.
Mavis is so chilling that about three quarters of the way through, I genuinely believed she was going to start killing people. "She's going to grab that baby," I thought to myself. "And she's going to eat it."
And while these things might seem like problems, this is why I like Young Adult -- at least, in a way. What this film does, in essence, is take something like My Best Friend's Wedding and play it completely straight. What if you decided your soulmate was married to the wrong person, and what you had to do was get in there and convince him of this fact and win him over? What if you really did that?
You'd be insane. You'd be Mavis. Why not make that movie? Why not have a hugely unlikable, genuinely insane female lead? Charlize Theron is fantastic. You look in her eyes, and you see Mavis's psyche falling apart. There is nothing cloying, nothing false or saccharine. Patton Oswald is very charming, and provides many of the film's observations, which can be largely summed up as: "Mavis, you are nuts. And you're drunk." Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) seems to have no personality to speak of, which highlights the strangeness of the quest.
I did have a problem in that I couldn't figure out what the film was about. It felt to me like it cut off about an hour before it was over. Mavis goes on a journey, but seems to end up in the same spot, going from point A to point A. This film didn't have the unlikely buoyancy of Juno, in which a situation typically labeled as bad is explored from all angles. This is a straight look at a crooked situation.
In this film, the point seemed to be that Mavis writes Young Adult because she is emotionally stunted and trapped in her memories of high school. I would say that while Mavis is certainly stuck in high school, her problems are much more profound than that. This is not just a case of, "Wasn't high school great?" High school was clearly not that great. For a start, some of her friends were brutal gang bashers. She's clearly had emotional problems throughout her life. I'm just saying... this film should not be taken to demonstrate what YA writers are like. And I'm saying this because just this morning, three people asked jokingly me "Hey, is that writer in Young Adult based on you? Har har har!" This is going to be a thing. I can feel it.
That being said, I enjoyed the sections on the actual writing profession. When you see writers portrayed on film and television, they often have strange, slightly Anglicized accents. They're always working on some great work. They have fawning agents and editors. Young Adult went the other way. Mavis works on a book series as a ghostwriter, grinding out book after book even as the series sinks into oblivion. (I was not surprised to see that Diablo Cody worked on the adaptation of the Sweet Valley High movie.) That's certainly not all of YA, but the series book is a beloved institution. There was also a joke about all YA books being about vampires that touched my heart.
But maybe there is a solid connection to current YA. When you hear the phrase "young adult" maybe you expect something light and fluffy. And then you get hit between the eyes with something quite unexpected. Like this movie.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Patton Oswalt's name was misspelled. It has now been corrected.