Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Diablo Cody
Release date: 2011
Mavis Gary – Charlize Theron
Buddy Slade – Patrick Wilson
Beth Slade – Elizabeth Reaser
Matt Freehauf – Patton Oswald
Mavis Gary, a divorced, 37-year-old ghost writer of young adult novels, is living with her dog, a tiny Pomeranian called Dulce, in Minneapolis. She escaped her backwater hometown and she’s made a career. Although plenty of people would say she was successful, she is not happy with her life.
In fact she is nearing a complete meltdown: with the scary forty looming over her she is dating all the wrong guys if dating at all, drinking heavily in her free time. What’s more she is on deadline with her editor to finish the last book of the soon-to-be-cancelled and evidently declining series so she might lose her job soon.
One day she gets a mass e-mail; it’s from her former high school sweetheart Buddy Slade, announcing the birth of his daughter. Desperate Mavis believes it is a sign she and Buddy are meant to be together again. After all these years he contacted her, right? So what it was an e-mail sent to practically all other friends as well? It means deep down he must still care, doesn’t it?
Without thinking long about it she packs her suitcase, her laptop and her lap dog and leaves for Mercury, Minn., the hometown she hates, to reclaim her life with the old flame. She tells herself Buddy needs to be saved from his mundane suburban existence because it must be even worse than her own, right? And she will be his white knight.
Upon arriving she reconnects with a former classmate she barely remembers, Matt Freehauf, a disabled misfit who distills homemade bourbon in the garage of the house he shares with his sister. Then she accidentally stumbles upon her own mother she didn’t intend to visit at all, all the time claiming that she is here only because she has to oversee a real estate deal. Finally she meets Buddy and his wife, Beth, who is a drummer in the local ‘mom rock band’. When Mavis attends the concert of Beth’s band, the other moms are resentful of her – they remember her as the “psychotic prom queen bitch”. Let’s face it, nothing’s changed, Mavis proves them right at every turn.When Beth wants to stay out longer after the concert Mavis offers to drive the drunk Buddy home. On the lawn they share a kiss that is quickly broken up when a babysitter witnesses it. The next day, after an awkward encounter with her parents, Mavis is invited to Buddy’s daughter’s naming ceremony during which she declares her love for him. Will it be a new beginning or an end?
With the book market swamped with YA high school drama novels about prom queens and their crushes I was really curious to meet one of their authors even if a fictional one. I wasn’t disappointed. Mavis is someone you often want to throttle, a spoiled princess who used to have it all and now can’t come to terms with her failure. She drinks a lot, pulls at her hair when distressed and seems generally unconcerned with other people. When she writes her inane series she writes mainly about herself, or rather about a girl she would love to be, trying to forget that her real life is in tatters and she hardly ever acts her age. When she makes a decision it is usually a young-adult decision and her pathological inability to let go of the past is pulling her down at every turn.
Mavis earned my interest not because the film attempted to create sympathy but rather because her ideas and her actions were completely understandable in regards to how she has been groomed to see the world. It is a tale of stunted development and I admit Theron was a comic force of nature, presenting a bitingly witty performance. She gave her character considerable density and humanity despite her monstrous aspects. Usually in fiction female characters are judged as ‘unworthy’ (read: ‘bitches’) if they exhibit the slightest bit of selfish impulse and/or self-interest, and/or if they show the slight amount of characteristics which may be classified as ‘unsympathetic’. Mavis is a ‘super-bitch’ but her raw honesty and outrageous comments are actually her biggest assets. While there is a certain intensity in watching Mavis barrel towards her inevitable confrontation and failure, it creates a sense of dread more than gleeful anticipation.
Matt was an intriguing foil for Mavis. He was the voice of reason, warning her time and again as she attempted to seduce Buddy, and he ended up falling into the high school role of almost asexual sidekick. He was pathetic, that’s true, but in a lovable way and in the end he came across as a bigger, stronger man than Buddy himself. The film seems to forgive him his mental arrest, almost as if he had no other choice. Perhaps he didn’t. I was also pleased that the director wasn’t tempted to (spoiler, highlight to read) make of Matt another serious love interest of Mavis.
What’s interesting about this particular narrative is how much it resembles the plot line of any number of male-driven romantic melodramas. If you read one of them you know them all: a hometown boy made good comes back to his birthplace and a) realizes what he’s missing all along and b) rekindles a romance with his childhood sweetheart who of course was the right girl for him but he was blind. Young Adult skews these absurd fantasies showing that sometimes it is not only too late to enter the same river twice but also it is hardly wise to try. There is an undercurrent of sadness that flows through the movie, which in turn makes its pitch-black comic tone all the more potent.
I found this movie very funny, often sad and a little bit scathing, but I didn’t feel dirtied coming out of it. In fact it’s a film I’ll be happy to revisit. When big-studio comedies lull us with smiles and fairy tales this one makes you laugh because it shows harsh truth. Bitter-sweet truth, without easy, miracle solutions but still.