Young Adult (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Young Adult (2011)

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I'll admit it, I love going to the movie theater, and the following story is one of the reasons why.

There's a moment in Young Adult where the camera is taking its time to establish the small town of Mercury, Minnesota. Most big cities would end up having the camera linger on their significant buildings and their monuments. Director Jason Reitman twists this down to scale, as the shots slowly pan across Chilli's, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Staples.

The man behind me in the dark drops his guard and lets out a whisper of absolute horror: "Oh dear God."

I thought it was hilarious because, to be quite honest, Mercury looks exactly like the town I grew up in. From the scrappy neighborhood joints squeaking by to the main strip that relies on an endless cycle of trendy, soulless chain restaurants to survive. There's an apathetic teenager at the front counter of the chain hotel, and the bright but ugly sports bar and grill with the inane slogan doesn't even have a team to cheer for.

Welcome back to the world of a small town.

Your usual, content kind of guy.

I guess that sentiment's both for me and Mavis (Charlize Theron), the film's protagonist whose life is what most would consider perfect until examined twice-- think Richard Cory with a not-so-subtle tinge of alcoholism. She was popular in her small town, and now infamous there as she managed to escape to the relative metropolis of Minneapolis. Her job is a ghost writer on a series of young adult books that have spiraled into obsolescence, and she's recently been feeling the pangs that her life is headed the same way.

In a desperate attempt to reconnect to her past, she returns to Mercury to try and seduce her high school boyfriend. The only problem is that Buddy (Patrick Wilson) is happily married with a newborn. Mavis, unnervingly, is undeterred.

Diablo Cody (one of the few screenwriters who'll get such a notable mention in a film review simply because her record's been so incredibly unique and/or controversial) packs Young Adult with a dozen layers of metaphorical indications of arrested development for Mavis, showing her stuck on one song in her car's tape player, watching vapid teenage reality shows, and drinking ungodly amounts of booze. She's still in high school, for all intents and purposes, as scary as that can be.

Encountering her in this descent is Matt (Patton Oswalt), who shared her high school experience from the opposite perspective. He spent most of his senior year in intensive care after being the victim of an unjustified hate crime, and his sanity can barely stand its ground after he encounters both Mavis's single minded determination and self righteous sense of victimization.

Yes, Theron also eats a KFC Famous Bowl later in the film. Lookup Oswalt's routine on them on YouTube to get that joke.

What sells the movie is the intensely humanistic feeling that the movie lends itself to, taking Mavis for what she is, in all of her broken glory. Theron shows again why she's one of the most daring actresses working today, and I feel shame in typing out that sentence even though I mean it. It's just damned empty praise for such a consistently stellar show of her craft.

Director Reitman (of Juno, Up in the Air, and, a personal favorite, Thank You For Smoking) wisely sticks with Theron's character and world throughout, giving us hints of the reasons behind her issues carefully. He also takes a great amount of delicacy of crafting Mercury and its inhabitants, giving the audience the same sort of growing claustrophobic feeling that Mavis is consumed with.

The superiority complex Mavis is endowed unto for most of the film is fascinating, since the movie uses several different layers to deconstruct it. The main conflict of the film comes from people who have stuck themselves in an adolescent circle of rivalry and envy, and the only characters who escape this unscathed are the ones who've found a way to exit it, i.e. growing up.

This complexity is mirrored in how the locations are portrayed in Young Adult. Mercury and Minneapolis both come across as characters in the movie, which adds layers to the film's portrayals. This plays into the movie having a love/hate relationship with the small town aesthetic, and I think that's perfectly encapsulated by the high school metaphor that most of the characters operate on.

Mercury, for all of its generic fast food eateries, has a a real sense of community underneath. What we see of Minneapolis is empty, anonymous, and messy. You can even extend this metaphor and these ideas to our national preoccupation with beauty and success to find a minefield of satire that Reitman and Cody have cleverly laid.

Both the enemy and the hero.

While I think some may come away from the movie as seeing it as a nasty deconstruction of the 'popular girl' in high school or as some sort of revenge piece, its sympathies are never as simple as that. No character comes away totally unscathed, as anyone who entices themselves to ascribe to beholding their past is crippled in one way or another, visibly or not.

This is a movie that charmed me in ways few have. When the man behind me muttered his "Oh dear God", I assure you, I was thinking the exact same thing; I've been here, I've seen this all of this, and honestly, I still see this behavior from people I know.

Young Adult isn't just relevant, it's revelatory. To be even more blatant: see this movie.

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Posted by Danny

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