In Young Adult, Charlize Theron plays an ugly knockout. Her Mavis Gary isn’t a babe hiding behind glasses or bad makeup a la Monster. She’s a 37-year-old writer who still wears Hello, Kitty! clothes and says things like “Gross.” She was voted Best Hair in high school, a time of her life she idealizes, when she thinks she was “at her best.” In reality, though, “at her best” meant behavior such as making fun of a crippled student and calling him a “theater fag.”
But Mavis was also going out with Buddy (Patrick Wilson) during those halcyon years, and they had sex and mixtapes and special songs. So she’s not happy when an email pops into her inbox with a pic of Buddy’s newborn, a product of his happy marriage to someone who is not Mavis. They’re meant to be together, Mavis believes. I’m going to go get him, she decides. So Mavis, able to live the spontaneous, nomadic life of an author of a failing young-adult series, packs up her laptop and leaves Minneapolis for her podunk hometown to win Buddy back.
Young Adult is directed by Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) and penned by Diablo Cody (Juno), the latter of which may be cinematic Kryptonite to viewers who rolled their eyes at Juno MacGuff’s what-the-fuck verbosity. (Reitman also directed that film.) There’s not a “home skillet” to be found, however; in fact, the script’s underwritten. Cody does at least demonstrate a more reasonable grasp of how teens talk, feeding the appropriate lines not only into Mavis’ stunted mouth but also those of the girls on whom the writer eavesdrops for book material.
But whereas the dialogue is smooth, the story is lacking. Girl-chases-boy may be a variation on a classic, but here it’s not enough. Mavis meets with Buddy a handful of times after she returns home, dolling herself up and having her hopes raised by his every nice word. Afterward, she turns to Matt (Patton Oswald), the aforementioned handicapped guy whom she runs into her first night back and decides to make her confidante/drinking buddy. (Mavis drinks a lot.) Soon, we start to feel like the best friend who’s too polite to tell a torch-carrier to shut the hell up. And so does the spinelessly nice (and likely torch-carrier himself) Matt: “You need to move on!” he finally blurts after one too many brain-bleeding it-was-so-great! recaps.
And that’s about all there is to the story — Mavis fantasizing, Mavis with Buddy, Mavis with Matt. It’s a short stretched to feature-length. Theron is what keeps the film from being a total yawner; it’s fascinating how she makes the character’s bitterness manifest itself in bedraggledness, even when she still looks, well, like Theron does. (Near-constant sweats and a slouch help, but the actress is still gorgeous.) There’s a slice of lesson-learning here, which is hinted at throughout the film but more pointedly served at the end, when Mavis is bemoaning her fate to Matt’s sister (Collette Wolfe), who’s dazzled at the big-city writer. “Everyone wishes that they could be like you,” she tells a hungover Mavis. It seems to give her new resolve, but when Mavis gets back to Minneapolis, she still wears sweats.