Monday, December 19, 2011
Love: Young Adult
Mavis is the girl you hated in high school. She was that one. Not the one who you resented because she was well liked, but the other one: the one people feared. Mavis is the type who would steal your boyfriend, rub it in your face, recklessly throw around mercilessly cruel slurs, not bother to learn your real name, and probably offer blow jobs between long swigs of hard liquor in the woods. When she returns to Mercury, she believes that everyone still living there is worse off than she is. Her former classmates are backwoods idiots devoid of all her Juicy Couture sophistication. Yet, while they seem in awe of the city: we know that running away didn't do anything for Mavis other than entrap her in her own isolation. She's as delusional, conniving, and bitter as they come. You'd like to feel sorry for her, but the movie won't let you. She doesn't have any redeeming qualities.
Theron commits to her character in a way that pushes the boundaries of audience discomfort. There's none of the latent charm or accidental camaraderie that we might expect to sneak through in the film's quieter moments. Mavis is monstrous, a character we are forced to laugh at from the outside, but who saddens in a way that inspires violent frustration. We see how damaged her psyche is, we watch her drink away her present moments and pull at her hair, but Young Adult doesn't sympathize with its protagonist. It eschews moralizing, statement making, and redemption. Theron has bitchface down pat: she's a gorgeous woman who here, with limited makeup, seems to find ways to deaden her eyes, ice over her features, and lock into a perpetual scowl. Though you can understand her...you hate her, you hate her motivation, you hate how self-centered she is. Yet, as much as you may loathe Mavis, that's how much you will love Theron for playing her.
Young Adult's warm center is Mercury High's resident outcast, Matt Freehoff (Patton Oswalt). Oswalt is an ingenious bit of casting, the sort of figure we'd hardly expect to find playing opposite of an ice queen like Theron. Matt is a geeky cool character firmly grounded in the reality of his situation. Unlike Mavis, Matt's life has actually been hard, and high school left him physically damaged (the result of a truly heinous hate crime). Where Mavis dwells on the negative, however, concocting elaborate fictions to cope with the emptiness of her own existence, Matt seems genuinely comfortable in his own skin. The two strike up an odd friendship which, for him, seems based in a mix of curiosity and genuine kindness. He clearly loves the twilight zone weirdness of their interactions. Guys like him, he insists, can't help but fall for girls like her. In the big budget, Katherine Heigl version of Young Adult, Matt would be the "suitable" alternative, the guy our heroine doesn't notice until she runs the risk of losing him in a climactic moment of epiphany. Young Adult ain't typical. It's caustic. In this reality, the epiphanies come not with heart-bursting pop songs, but with dirty, kicked at grunge. While Matt gives us a glimmer of something good, Young Adult is a painfully funny jaunt into the darkness.