Everyone remembers the popular students in high school, who seemingly have everything they need and want to succeed in life, even after graduation. While the mean girls at the top of the social hierarchy have often been immortalized in films, rarely is the former in crowd who are nearing middle age represented on screen.
Acclaimed Academy Award-nominated director Jason Reitman once again has made another compelling movie focusing on the tribulations of life in his new comedy-drama Young Adult. Focusing on what happens when the once popular teen girl struggles to find her place in the real world, the film is an entertaining, realistic satire of what everyone envisions happens to the student who seemingly had everything life could offer.
Young Adult follows 37-year-old former high school It girl Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a ghostwriter of a once popular teen series who’s living in Minneapolis. Upset that the franchise has been canceled, Mavis decides to return to her small hometown of Mercury, Minnesota after hearing her high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), just had a baby with his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser).
While Mavis acts as though moving into the city has made her successful and happy, she comes to realize how difficult the real world really is when she reunites with another former classmate, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). While the two weren’t friends in high school, Mavis and Matt form an unlikely bond over the hardships of what it feels like to have peaked in high school, and never fully maturing afterward.
Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, who scripted Young Adult, has created another memorable central character who partakes in unbelievable acts, but whom the audience still sympathizes with, and therefore understands her pain and motivation. Mavis doesn’t respond well to pressure and rejection, leaving viewers continuously wondering what outrageous thing she will do next in order to grab Buddy’s attention.
While it’s rare to feature a mean girl as a film’s protagonist, Mavis embodies everyone’s fear that their childhood friends and former classmates are now more successful and happier than they are. While her daring actions in grabbing Buddy’s attentions, including kissing him after a drunken night at the bar, seem rash and emotionally immature, Mavis inadvertently shows the vulnerabilities of people who question their achievements and self-worth.
While Cody effortlessly created a main character who had mixed, immoral intentions, the script never judges Mavis. As much as audiences may want to hate her for intentionally trying to break up Buddy and Beth’s marriage, Theron helps create a realistic portrait of how people really act when they don’t emotionally mature. The Academy Award-winning actress shows why Mavis hasn’t emotionally grown since high school, she’s still living with the idea that she’s the best at everything, and she can do no wrong, which no one does anything to change.
Mavis’ parents, Hedda (Jill Eikenberry) and David (Richard Berkins), are two people who are the most oblivious to their daughter’s pain, and essentially keep her stuck in the past. They keep her old bedroom exactly the same as it was when she was in high school, have left her wedding picture to her ex-husband displayed on their wall and dismiss her claims that she may be an alcoholic. They do this to idolize her former glory and the fact that she once had a promising future. In Mavis’ books, there are designated winners and losers, and she feels like she’s now the characters who aren’t successful in their lives; she’s frustrated that she can’t even claim credit for her work, since the series is contributed to another writer.
Young Adult‘s costume designer, David C. Robinson, effectively shows how depressed Mavis is by dressing her in disheveled clothing that pays tribute to pop culture. As a way to stay connected to her former glory and her continued obsession with life’s artificial indulgences, such as reality television, she dresses in Ugg boots and a Hello Kitty shirt. Her neglect over her appearance reflect her disconnect between her public persona as a writer in the big city and her private self of struggling to be happy.
With Mavis struggling to find true happiness, Reitman made an interesting decision not to openly state Buddy’s current feelings for her, which effectively worked in encouraging her behavior. While she’s shocked the first night they reunite that he doesn’t immediately take her back, he doesn’t stop her advances. In Mavis’ mind, he’s encouraging her to keep trying, and as a cry for help to rescue him from what she feels is a mundane life. While Buddy and Beth clearly love each other and have more chemistry together now than he has with Mavis, viewers will question whether he’s debating if he should romantically reconnect with her.
One surprisingly genuine relationship Mavis develops when she returns home to Mercury is with Matt. Their bond is believable and intriguing, due to Theron’s natural chemistry with Oswalt. Reitman stated in an interview with us that the two actors instantly had a natural chemistry at their first table read together, and brought that to their respective characters, who bond over their hate for the same things.
Despite his admiration of Mavis when they were in high school, Matt is surprisingly the only person who isn’t afraid to stand up to her and question her motives. Since he understands her feelings of feeling alone and neglected, Matt acts as Mavis’ conscience, making her realize there’s more to life than high school successes. Since Theron and Oswalt formed an unlikely, intimate working relationship, their comfort with each other easily translated to their characters.
Young Adult‘s surprising protagonist, the superficial Mavis, perfectly captures the essence of the popular crowd who peaked in high school and now don’t have a single redeeming characteristic. While Mavis engages in some outrageous acts that many people wouldn’t even consider doing, particularly trying to win back their married high school sweetheart, her vulnerability allows viewers to empathize with her pain. While her own parents fail to do anything to help her emotionally mature, Mavis’ surprising but natural relationship with Matt makes her realize there’s more to life than being the former It girl in school.