Friday, 17 February 2012

Young Adult - Diabolo Cody, Jason Reitman, Charlize Theron

I saw this film about three weeks ago and I still haven't quite sorted it out. I like the director's other movies, and Diabolo Cody is my kind of writer. They made Juno together and that was enough for me. I was a confused by Young Adult, and when I'm confused, I turn to Roger Ebert. I don't always agree with him (especially over the grossly over-rated Synechdoche: New York) but his reviews often help me clarify what I'm thinking.

Charlize Theron plays Mavis, a late-thirties freelance writer of adolescent novels who lives in an high-rise apartment in Minneapolis, drinks too much and her battle prep includes manicures and pedicures. She's divorced, behind on delivering the final novel in the series that's been paying her bills, and suddenly gets a mail from her high-school boyfriend Buddy Slade  announcing the birth of his daughter. Off she goes to the baby shower, or whatever they call it, to bring the boyfriend back with her. 

Would a real-ish Mavis really do those things? Well, here's the painful identification bit. Mavis reminded me of me when I was her age - except I was prettier than Mavis and didn't drink Coca-Cola to get over hangovers. We both had relationships from our youth we held onto as a kind of fantasy, neither of us were happy in our jobs, neither of us were happy where we lived, both of us drank too much, but we hadn't crossed the line. I knew my unresolved crush was married and had children, and living a life more suited to her than any I could provide. Somewhere in the bit of my brain where reality rules, I knew there would be no reviving anything. But very few people have the grasp of reality I have - something I've been told a number of times, as if it's a bad thing - and without that, yes, I would have set off after her. So I accepted Mavis' homecoming both as a plot premise and as an emotional truth.

That connection was totally lost when I was asked to believe she would stick around after meeting the dreadful, gender-shaming betamax that her high school boyfriend has turned into. A man who bottles his wife's breast-pumped baby milk, and who quit drinking out of solidarity with her during the pregnancy? No. Had I actually met my unresolved fantasy, who I'm pretty sure is an exemplary wife and mother, I would have muttered something about having the wrong address and left quickly. The real exemplary mother wasn't the fantasy. So I couldn't buy Mavis not reacting the same way, and I lost the connection.

When she's visiting her parents, Mavis says she thinks she may be an alcoholic. Ebert believes this. I didn't. Alcoholics have a streak of self-pity, even after years in recovery and a good few runs up the Steps. Charlize Theron is just too tough to be a victim. I think Jason Rietman wanted it that way. Because he gets to have her behave as an alcoholic woman with neither judgement nor protective vanity, but without us emotionally believing it - because Charlize Theron's body language just doesn't communicate it. 

Young Adult is about how awful small town life is. Since you're not allowed to say that - unless it's made unreal by being spoken by a teenage girl - this has to be disguised as a Homecoming movie. Homecoming movies are either like Sweet Home Alabama, where the local-girl-made-good-in-the-big-city learns to value her home-town roots and high school boyfriend, or lead up to a Revelatory Climax in which we discover that a) the heroine was a bitch or b) the heroine was molested by her father. There's a Revelatory Climax in this movie, where we discover that the heroine nearly had the boyfriend's child, but it was spontaneously aborted. I didn't buy that as anything but a script fix, so I ignored it. It's just there to confuse us. The real climax is the speech from Collette Wolfe's character Sandra Freehauf to the effect that, yes, the small town life utterly sucks, and will Mavis please take her to the Mini Apple. Mavis says no, but the speech gets her right back on track. "Thanks, I needed that" she says.

That I did identify with. And the bit where she gets out. With a completed novel. The couple of scenes where she writes in diners and fast food joints, and steals lines from the very people who make up her audience? Those I liked, those actually swung. The film ends with her Young Adult novel's character leaving behind high-school and heading into the real world with high hopes and a couple of ego bruises. Is this supposed to be Mavis? Or is it just her book? I think that's another ambiguity to make the story palatable. Because what awaits Mavis isn't pretty: she isn't going to be happy, satisfied or content - except for a few brief moments. You understand I'm speaking from experience here. She's going to spend the next forty years showing up and faking it. Which is no way to end a general-release movie.

And that's the thing with this movie: there's no-one to like and connect with. Because that would engage our sympathies with them and against the other: with the small town, against Mavis; with Mavis, against the small town. For some reason Cody and Reitman wanted us to do neither. Which makes it more real, but for that reason, less satisfying.

No comments:

Post a Comment