The Diablo-Cody-penned Juno (2007) became justly beloved for a number of reasons: it wasn’t just charming and quirky, it was a redemptive tale where the primary villain was simply confusion. Once everyone followed their hearts, everything was just groovy in the end. In her screenplay for Young Adult, Cody revisits some of the same topics—life course confusion, in/fidelity, the pros and cons of settling down and having kids—but Young Adult tells a much darker story. Unlike Juno, it won’t be a DVD your mom and dad will want to own.
To start with, the confused central character isn’t a young girl: she’s 37 years old, struggling with depression and that kind of lifestyle where every once in a while you look at someone and say, “I’m probably an alcoholic,” then go back to drinking. As played by Charlize Theron, Mavis Gary is a beautiful woman who has her pick of men, but who’s not happy—via depression, because that’s how that works. When she receives word that her teenage flame (Patrick Wilson) and his wife have just given birth to a baby, she spontaneously decides to go back to her small hometown and win her flame back.
The trailer sets that up as the premise for a goofy comedy with Mavis as a fish-out-of-water in her own pond, but though there are plenty of amusing moments in Young Adult, Cody and director Jason Reitman have a more substantive agenda: to show the audience what Mavis has known for decades, which is that being depressed and alcoholic is not goofy and fun, even if you’re a clever writer of popular young adult novels, look like Charlize Theron, and live in Party City, U.S.A. (a.k.a. Minneapolis). Who thinks it’s cute to seduce a happily married man? Not a lot of people, and the plot of Young Adult comes to hinge on whether or not Mavis’s target is one of them.
It’s an unsparing film, and compelling in the way that any beautiful train wreck is compelling. It’s not entirely successful, though. A major plot thread has Mavis reconnecting with a high school classmate (Patton Oswalt) who was permanently crippled by a teenage gay-bashing incident; it tells you a lot about this movie’s sense of humor that there’s a running gag involving the fact that 20 years later, everyone in town still mistakenly thinks he’s gay. Though Oswalt was a smart casting choice, the character is half-baked, and the fact that Cody makes him aware of the metaphorical significance of his crutch doesn’t let her off the hook for underdeveloping the character. There’s a scene involving his character that we see coming a mile away, and that we hope will be handled in an interesting way. Nope, it just happens and then it’s done happening.
More interesting is the character of Oswalt’s homebody sister (Collette Wolfe), who faces off with Theron in a poignant kitchen-table exchange revealing that the grass is actually pretty brown on both sides of the fence dividing their lives. It’s not a pick-me-up message, and Young Adult isn’t a feel-good film. By its ferociously dark conclusion, though, it’s made an indelible mark.