Diablo Cody had a choice to make. After disappointing critics and audiences with her 2010 film, "Jennifer's Body," the Oscar-winning screenwriter began writing a script about a bitter thirty-something making a desperate attempt to reclaim her glory days. As the story grew darker and darker, Cody faced a creative crossroads.
"During the writing process, I toyed with the idea of it just having it pan out in a more traditional way," Cody remembered in a recent interview with The Huffington Post. "There was definitely a traditional romantic-comedy version of this movie in my mind. But I just had to ask myself at some point, 'What are you going to do? Are you going to do this balls-out, or are you going to neuter it?' "
Cody decided to "summon the bravery" and stick with the story she really wanted to write, even though she suspected that the final script would never see the light of day in risk-averse Hollywood. The result paid off; two years later, she's promoting "Young Adult," one of the most anticipated films of the season.
In the film Charlize Theron stars as Mavis Gary, a writer of serialized young-adult novels and former high-school mean girl who heads back to her small hometown in suburban Minnesota. Her mission: to win back her ex-boyfriend, Buddy. This would all be pretty standard rom-com fare were it not for the fact that the ex-boyfriend in question, played by Patrick Wilson, is now married and a new father.
Arrogant and haunted by a past she can't reclaim, Mavis is relentlessly mean, manipulative and in no way traditionally likable. She guzzles Diet Coke in the morning and whiskey at night, scoffs at things like babies and charity work, and carries out her mission with ruthless, unrelenting determination. In seeking to destroy Buddy's marriage, she flirts with him in front of his wife, makes rude remarks to old classmates and cruelly dismisses anyone she deems inferior to her -- which is pretty much everyone.
Somehow the audience nevertheless winds up feeling empathy for this social assassin, a minor miracle that director Jason Reitman chalks up to the compassion and sheer talent of his lead actress.
"It would be so easy to just to do a caricature of a mean girl," Reitman told The Huffington Post. "And I was only going to make this movie if I could make it with Charlize, because I know she wouldn't do that. I knew she would create a full human being who had deep issues, who was broken and vulnerable. Everyone's felt the things that she feels. Everyone wants to be loved; everyone wants to know where they're going in life; everyone wants to have a sense of direction and feel the next day is going to be better than today. We just all deal with it in a different way."
Mavis's way, he notes, is particularly troubling. But in the end, he argues that the dusty mix tapes and high school sweatshirts she clings to "are at the end of the day symptoms of a feeling that everyone has. The trick to this portrayal was not acting the symptoms but acting the feelings, and I think her vulnerability and her brokenness was something people can understand."
The trip back to Mercury also has a voyeuristic quality, one that resonates in an age when we can keep up with anyone from our pasts. We know when friends from high school are complaining, when college roommates are still getting drunk and old flames go through another breakup. The world Mavis re-enters, and the spite she feels for it, may not be so foreign after all.
"I feel like Facebook is, in a lot of ways, proof that people don't change," Cody said. "The fact that we can keep up with the people that we used to know and watch them progress or not progress -- which is the case most of the time -- it's interesting and it's a little sad."
Mavis's foil in the film is the quiet geek Matt, a classmate who never left Mercury after a severe beating from bullies left him crippled and emotionally scarred. Played by comedian Patton Oswalt, Matt is the "heart of the movie," in Reitman's words, and the eyes through which the audience views the story.
Upon Mavis' return, she and Matt strike up an unlikely friendship based on their shared inability to move on from the past. "I think Matt is an inherently cynical person, and he's finally met somebody who just shamelessly gives voice to the things that he's thinking," Cody said. "He would never have the guts to act like Mavis, because he doesn't have the gorgeous outer shell that allows her to behave that way. She's always gotten away with being like that, because she is stunning, whereas a guy like Matt can't get away with speaking his mind, so she does it for him."
Oswalt got the role after he and Theron wowed Reitman with their chemistry during an early table read of the script at the director's home, and Reitman said that much of Matt's arc was determined by that audition.
"That's kind of the moment that I realized that this is a strange, heartbreaking romance about two people who can't be together," he said. "And you never really get into the reasons why they can't be together, but watching them together, you're watching two people who in any other movie, you'd be like, 'Oh, these two people would make a great couple.' "
For his part, Matt is just as damaged as Mavis, just in an entirely different way. He's the perpetual victim, handicapped physically and emotionally. The new friends are "in an airlock of mutual despair," as Oswalt put it, representing products of the darker extremes of adolescence.
Neither Reitman or Cody had high school experiences quite so scarring, but the experience of going to class reunions was nonetheless quite informative to their work on "Young Adult." Whenever he encounters someone from his high school days, Reitman immediately forgets his success -- no easy task when one's accomplishments include four Oscar nominations -- and remembers his days spent alone in the video editing room. Almost instantly he becomes "uncomfortable and nerdy and less than and defensive," as he put it.
As for Cody, there's little she has left to hide, having rocketed to fame with a book about her days as a stripper.
"I'll acknowledge that there might be some people who see me as a success," she said. "In a weird way I feel like a laughing stock."
"I'm not like I'm Angelina Jolie where I'm just super-successful and acclaimed and that's it. It's really more like, I really was so candid early in my career that I really exposed myself in a lot of ways, so they don't just know the successful side of me," Cody continued. "Everybody knows that I'm also kind of a flawed and bizarre person. So it's a tradeoff. On one hand, I might have success and fame, but on the other, they have privacy and dignity. So maybe they win."
Then again, "Young Adult" isn't about privacy, dignity or the illusion of social grace -- that would be too easy.