The massive success of Juno turned into a bit of a straitjacket for screenwriter Diablo Cody, whose quirky, catchphrase-laden screenplay won an Oscar and became a pop-culture phenomenon. Cody’s next screenplay, for the horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body, was about 85 percent catchphrases, and her Showtime dramedy United States of Tara only started toning down the excessive quirkiness in its second season. But Cody has delivered in a big way by reteaming with Juno director Jason Reitman on Young Adult, a bracingly cynical comedy that features virtually none of Juno’s glib quippery or hipster-fied feel-good moments.
The black heart of Young Adult is a fantastic performance from Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, a former high-school queen bee who went on to write a series of popular young-adult novels about high schoolers. Mavis escaped her Minnesota small town, moved to the big city (Minneapolis) and found success, but she isn’t satisfied; divorced and lonely, she fills her life with drinking and meaningless sex and still pines for her high-school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson). In an impulsive attempt to re-create the greatest time in her life, Mavis heads back to her hometown determined to steal Buddy away from his loving wife and newborn child.
Like a grown-up version of one of Heathers’ toxic popular girls, Mavis is vain, vindictive and self-important, but her delusional quest to win back the man who clearly doesn’t want her is surprisingly affecting, even as Cody and Reitman make almost no effort to give her any sympathetic qualities. It helps that she acquires a sidekick/conscience in former high-school outcast Matt (Patton Oswalt), who sees through Mavis’ polished front but befriends her anyway; both geeky loner Matt and bitchy ice queen Mavis are living out their high-school roles far past their expiration dates.
A big speech toward the end of the film threatens to humanize Mavis a little too much, but Cody and Reitman pull back from any overt sentimentality, instead allowing their protagonist to retain her damaged unpleasantness. There’s no redemptive arc in Young Adult, no growing up or letting go, and that’s the genius of it: Mavis is a beautiful, terrible person, and, like Matt, we can’t help but be both drawn to and repulsed by her.