Young Adult feels like a bad dream. Actually, that’s not quite right. Dreams are accidental and uncontrollable, and no matter how unpleasant they become, it’s not as if you’re trying to make them as bad as they can be. Young Adult, though, was purposely written and directed to be as off-putting, grating, and disappointing as possible. It fails at every turn to give the viewer a reason to care about these people. It’s not as if every bad character in film or television program has to change into a good one, either. Off the top of my head here, Walter White is a twisted and dangerous man capable of genuine evil, but his every action is riveting because he’s doing these things for a reason. He has examined himself and determined both his interests and how to achieve them. He is willing to do what he feels must be done to reach a goal, and that goal is one that’s understandable to even the simplest viewer. He’s a step beyond us, but just barely. Similarly, the gleefully disingenuous Nick Naylor of director Jason Reitman’s own Thank You for Smoking wasn’t exactly a moral paragon, but he resonated as a character because, at heart, he was trying to do what he thought was right for his child and himself. The merits of that rightness are a separate issue; what matters is he made the choice. That’s why he’s a human being, and why the central character of Young Adult — young adult novelist Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) — is a shell of a woman. Mavis is a regressive misanthrope chasing her own delusions, earning the pity of good people even as she tries to destroy them. Her goal is not a torqued version of one we might understand; it’s simply to act as selfishly as possible for as long as possible. Instead of being an interesting villain, she’s just vile.
What really makes Mavis’s whole non-arc so tragically bad is the way writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman intercede at every turn to prevent her from gaining even an ounce of self-awareness. She begins and ends the film in the same state of bitter self-pity and total denial of the world around her, and this is a state that is actively condoned by the writing and direction. This is not an accidental thing. This is not a skewed or stretched reading of the material. Mavis does her best to hurt those around her and promptly skates away, as if she never had cause to do anything else. Bad characters don’t have to become better, but they do need to be recognizably human. We don’t have to enjoy their choices or condone them, but we do have to connect to that spark of humanity inside them that made them act that way in the first place. There’s no chance of that here.
Mavis lives alone in a kind of moral hibernation from the world, drifting listlessly around her Minneapolis apartment between fitfully working on the latest draft of a young adult novel that’s the culmination of a generic rip-off of the Sweet Valley High series. When the film begins, the series is being shuttered because of low sales — at one point a fleeting mention is made to the popularity of vampires, not jocks, in YA lit — and Mavis is procrastinating. She gets an email from her old high school flame, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), announcing that he’s had a baby with his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), and is still living in their old hometown of Mercury, Minnesota. This is all the motivation Mavis needs to grab an old mix tape he made her and hit the road. Her plan is to get him back, wife and baby be damned. That probably sounds on paper like the plot of a comedy, but Young Adult is an aggressively dark drama, fueled by anger and confusion and the authorial feeling that cruelty, if not a virtue, is at least something that should be tolerated in the interest of letting everyone find themselves. There are no gags, no set ups, no teachable moments. Nothing but derision and self-destruction. Coming from a stodgy drama that pretends it’s a comedy, that’s a bad sign.
Theron is magnetic, though. There’s no denying it. In fact, it’s only her total command of the air around her that makes the film watchable for so long — we, like the people in Mavis’s life, fall under her spell a little. Mavis drives around Mercury, sneering at its shopping malls and chain eateries, eventually running into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a classmate of hers who was beaten and left for dead by jocks who thought he was gay and whose identity absolutely escapes Mavis until he jogs her memory with the hate crime. They glom onto each other for the duration of Mavis’s trip; she needs someone to complain to, he wants someone to push him around. There’s a fascinating dynamic at play between them, and at times we’re presented with honest, crushing moments that illuminate the complex mix of loneliness and fear that drives them. (As Matt confesses one night, “Guys like me are born loving women like you.”) Reitman and Cody so often find themselves on the verge of real drama, which uses internal conflict to drive momentum. Just as quickly, though, that tension dissipates, and we’re back to watching Mavis ingratiate herself into Buddy’s life as she tries to come up with increasingly desperate and scathing ways to steal him for herself.
Oswalt is the film’s other star, and he brings the same ideal balance of self-pity and repressed anger that he did to Big Fan. Whether he’s got a legitimate dramatic range remains to be seen, but in narrow spaces, he’s fantastic. There are moments here that ask him to be more open and vulnerable than anything he’s ever done in the world of stand-up comedy, and he nails them. The rest of the fairly small cast is strong, too: Wilson’s perfectly suited to the role of easygoing former jock, while Reaser’s got a pleasant energy and gets to be a real woman, not just a cartoony wife nervously eyeing her husband’s ex. They’re all good players, and they all have their moments, but it’s just not enough.
This is darker and grimmer content than Reitman’s ever worked with, and it’s by far his least enjoyable film. But worse than that, it’s his least human. His directorial hand is more restrained than ever, but that restraint becomes silent condonation of the acts perpetrated by his lead. Cody’s cooked up a bitter brew, too. There is no wrestling with Mavis, and precious little understanding her. By the time a last-minute revelation is dropped in as an attempt to explain the source of her antisocial vitriol, we’ve gone too far to care. It also feels half-hearted at best considering the dozens of other ways the film underscores its support for Mavis’s behavior. The ending is so rushed and flat it feels as if the crew ran out of money and just went with what they had in the can, but no, it’s real. I won’t go into any details here except to say that the final moments are a ridiculous cop out, Cody’s own version of the kind of deus ex machina Mavis tacks onto her books, as the heroine briefly flirts with the idea of change or evolution and decides to just say fuck it and bail. It’s a handicapping of what could have been, if not an emotional journey, then the equally compelling first step that starts such journeys. It’s self-serving and bitter, ugly and reprehensible, a reinforcement of every bad thing we’ve spent 90 minutes trying to bear in the hopes it would be worth it. But it’s not. Not by a long shot. The closing credits scroll by to the strains of “When We Grow Up,” from Marlo Thomas’s “Free to Be … You and Me.” It’s the kind of generational culture reference that makes sense from Reitman and Cody (born in 1977 and ‘78, respectively), but its sly lines about never growing up and always staying the same take on a haunting cast. It’s possible the song is meant as a jabbing observation of Mavis’s neuroses, but given the film that’s come before, it just feels like a smug kiss-off. Because the truth is we do grow up, and we do have to change. Pretending otherwise is for, well, young adults. You can keep it.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.