01/19/2012 09:26 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

ReThink Review: Young Adult -- The Return of the (Prom) Queen

You probably remember those few extremely good-looking people from high school, who you spent hours gazing at from across a classroom or quad, fantasizing about a perfect future together and wishing that they would see all the wonderful things about you. So strong was the spell of their beauty that, in your eyes, they could do no wrong -- or, more accurately, that any wrong could be forgiven, justified, or ignored. And since others were probably in a similar trance (unless they were already mature enough to see past the façade), that might explain why many people who grew up pretty aren't always terribly nice, for the simple reason that they don't have to be in order to be liked and get what they want. Over time, it's easy to see why beautiful people might conclude that they're as wonderful as everyone tells them they are, and that they deserve the fawning treatment they receive. But in most teen movies, the heroic supposed geeks, losers, and outcasts are often as or more attractive than the beauties they're pining for or are jealous of -- a fact that is predictably discovered after some sort of makeover before prom or a big party that reveals that the outcasts' outer beauty coincidentally matches their inner beauty.

Young Adult gives this a refreshing twist, as stunner Charlize Theron plays Mavis, the uncredited author of a series of Young Adult novels. Finding herself divorced, unhappy, increasingly alcoholic, and with her series ending, she decides to travel from Minneapolis to her small hometown of Mercury, MN to win back her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who is happily married with a new baby. But what makes Young Adult interesting is that Mavis' character looks like Charlize Theron, meaning that she was the prom queen and the girl every guy wanted to date and every girl wanted to be, regardless of how nasty or dismissive Mavis was to them. And almost 20 years later, those dynamics between her and her former classmates still remain strong. Watch the trailer for Young Adult below.

Upon returning to Mercury, Mavis crosses paths with Matt (Patton Oswalt), a shlubby nerd who spent high school crushing on Mavis, yet was completely ignored by her even though their lockers were next to each other's. The victim of a brutal beating in high school that left him disabled, Matt becomes Mavis' confidant of convenience after revealing her plan to take back the man she's decided is rightfully hers, thus saving Buddy from what she assumes is a boring small-town life with his non-ravishing wife (Elizabeth Reaser).

Young Adult is clearly set up as award bait for Theron, who gets the chance to be unlikable in almost every way (other than looks) and has, despite her failings, retained the sense of entitlement and lack of humility she had in high school. Her personality is that of the "young adult" of the movie's title, which explains how she can effectively mimic the voice of the attractive teen heroine of her young adult book series. The script, written by Diablo Cody, gives Theron plenty of mean, arrogant, and sometimes delusional things to say and do, which is a welcome evolution from the long, hyper-eloquent, pop culture-filled, overly-clever speeches delivered by Ellen Page from Cody's Oscar-winning screenplay for 2007's Juno.

However, a good amount of awards buzz is deservedly going to Oswalt. While Mavis glorifies and attempts to reclaim the dominion of her past, the lingering effects of Matt's injuries have left him trapped in his, unable to move on (or even out of his parents' house), and still reluctantly spellbound by Mavis' beauty. At the same time, he's gained enough maturity and perspective to call her on her bullshit while finding solace in the geeky interests of his youth (action figures and 90s indie rock) while carving out new ones (brewing his own bourbon, which Mavis greedily gulps). Oswalt -- who's best known for his stand-up comedy and supporting role on The King of Queens -- shows that he can dial back his comedic instincts to reveal the wounded, troubled, clever soul that's at the foundation of so much stand-up comedy, while managing to hold his own against the visually dominating Theron.

One of the most welcome things about Young Adult is that it rejects the tired movie clichés that people eventually change for the better, and that snooty, pretty city people just need some time with the "real folks" of small-town America to give them a dose of humility and remind them of what's really important. This coincides with the fantasy of all infatuated high schoolers -- that their crushes will someday descend from their perches, realize what fools they were, and become the people their admirers always hoped they would be.

And how did that turn out?

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