Young Adult (2011)

Director: Jason Reitman

Screenplay: Diablo Cody

Cast: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswald, Patrick Wilson

The Agony & the Apathy

You know, of course, the old Klingon saying that revenge is a dish best served cold, but that is rarely true in cinema where the revenge film genre is full of hot-blooded violent male fantasies. It is also true that these films tend to be thrillers in which males become, at least in part, victims of their own drive for revenge for wrongs done to the women in their lives (the subtext being that without women there would be no need for revenge and the male soul would be at peace). Some of these are pretty good movies — Mad Max (1979), Memento (2000),Taken (2008), and  Drive (2011), for example — while others are beyond the pale in their implications and cruelty (and, in my experience, they tend to belong to the rich sub-genre of Korean revenge thrillers).But in the wake of all this blood and gun-play, imprisonment and mutilation, comes a very different kind of revenge fantasy: Young Adult from the director and writer tandem that brought the world Juno(2007). Now, I’m going to abandon my usual (and common) director-biased view of cinema in favour of the writer of this film, Diablo Cody.

It seems to me that Young Adult is a film seeking vengeance not for its main character (Mavis), but on its main character. The film is cold and cruel as it strips away her props and delusions until she is left stained and naked save for the decidedly un-sexy NuBra stuck to her breasts. She perfumes herself with booze, sleeps it off face-down in her own self-negligence, washes it out with diet soda, gorges on KenTacoHut (KFC + Taco Bell + Pizza Hut all in one far too convenient fast-food box store). She is repeatedly pricked, snipped, and re-polished by indifferent manicurists and pedicurists; she plucks out the grey and pins hair-extensions to her head; she smashes her Mini and abandons her Pomeranian. Mavis is a wonder of both projection of loathing and injection of self-loathing. Do I think we are supposed to feel sorry for this character? Yes, that’s where I think the revenge fantasy is seemingly fulfilled. When Mavis finally has her breakdown in public, none of the other character is surprised. They pity her and yet have no mercy for her. But Ms. Cody isn’t done with Mavis yet. Victimized geeks must get their revenge, too, and Patton Oswald’s Matt Freehauf fulfils his fantasy by having sex with the hottest girl from high school whose jock friends beat him to within an inch of his life and left him an emotionally and physically scarred cripple. But the ultimate revenge comes right at the end, after talking with Matt’s sister on the morning-after, the promise of Mavis’s redemption, atonement, and self-awareness is rendered meaningless. Mavis is nudged back toward loathing and she accepts the invitation whole-heartedly. She apologizes to her dog, but to no one else, and heads back to a life of denial and reaffirmation in Minneapolis. I suppose this is the final cruelty to complete the fantasy, and ultimately because she’s a type and not a person, she deserves not to be redeemed; it wouldn’t be true and she clearly doesn’t want it — and neither does the audience.


3 responses to “Young Adult (2011)

  • Didion

    Great piece, Neil, and this is such a good reminder that the Klingons have such great one-liners.

    Sigh. I really believe this film had promise, but the writer wouldn’t let it achieve that promise because for whatever reason it seemed so important to keep punishing Mavis over & over. (Naming her Mavis wasn’t enough.)

    Not that we don’t all have fantasies about those high school bullies getting theirs, but honestly. I will say that this film made me far more impressed with Charlize Theron’s acting skill, even though it asked her to wallow around in filth for two hours.

    • neil

      The names, I think, are part of the subversion and revenge. Mavis Gary… come on. No girl of that type would ever be named that; the law of nominative determinism just would allow it. And, while I’m at it, Buudy Slade: there is equally no chance that any guy named Buddy Slade is as Mr. Perfect of Patrick Wilson’s character.

  • Didion

    I love the idea of nominative determinism, but then I remember that Cary Grant’s real name was Archie Leach, and Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur.

    Yeah, I can’t remember a film in which I was so aware of the writer’s presence — so aware of the fact that this writer in particular seems to have been clinging onto ancient grudges so deep that the story was strangled. Sometimes an Aaron Sorkin script will feel overly Sorkinized, but we never feel that he’s working out a neurotic obsession with some bully from his childhood. I’d like to say the Mean Girl Complex is a harder thing to shake, but honestly — it’s just not a very good script.

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