Last night, I got to see a sneak preview of Young Adult, the new Charlize Theron comedy from the writer-director team behind Juno. There's been some buzz in the kidlitosphere, worry that Young Adult will portray people in our profession in a negative light - that we're writing about teens because we're immature, can't grow up. And that Charlize's character will grow up in the end, and choose to write adult novels to symbolize her maturity. NONE OF THAT HAPPENS.
Young Adult was a great movie. It's not what you expect. It's a dark comedy-drama, and it stays that way until the credits. Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a rude, depressed thirty-something ghostwriter of a young adult series who decides to return to her hometown to win back her high school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson) - who happens to be married and a dad. When she isn't trying to seduce Buddy, she spends her time getting drunk with Matt, a high school classmate she never paid attention to. Her life peaked in high school, and she refuses to move on and grow up. She's an unlikable character, borderline pitiful, and she doesn't become a good person in the end. She does have an epiphany, but it's not what you expect, which I found refreshing. Mavis acted that way we wish we could act sometimes but never would. That may turn people off, but I appreciated that the filmmakers stuck to their guns and never veered into sentimental territory.
Through all this, I found the character fascinating to watch - a credit to the acting, writing, and directing. Charlize Theron is so good at playing bad, a trend she'll continue with Snow White and the Huntsman. The script was a step up from writer Diablo Cody's first film Juno. Unlike Juno, the characters were less verbose and witty, more natural sounding. She also used voiceover in a clever way. Director Jason Reitman gave the film a lived-in, unpolished feeling down to the omnipresence of chain stores, and he managed to wring humor from twisted characters and setups. He is now 4-for-4 with his films. If you haven't seen his first three films - Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air - netflix them now.
Young Adult does not discredit or disrespect young adult writers. It's not a commentary on authors or the genre - just Mavis, and she is an extreme example. She lives and acts like a teenager still, down to a messy room and drinking coke from the bottle first thing in the morning. Her young adult writing is a device the movie uses to explore the theme of growing up. She is stuck in the past, which is why she can't write about adults. Her YA series, which is getting canceled, is about catty girls at a prep school, very mid-2000s. Think The A-List, Private, Gossip Girl. The movie never makes the assumption that all YA writers are like this. It's only focusing on her arrested development.
Film and TV writers will identify more with Mavis than will YA authors. Most of them have left their small hometowns to make it big in NY/LA. They've gone on to try and be rich and famous while those they left behind got married, had kids, and live "boring" lives. However, the majority of YA authors I've read about and interact with are married with kids and live in the suburbs. Really, Young Adult is a semi-autobiographical movie about the screenwriter, Diablo Cody. Like Mavis Gary, Diablo lived in Minnesota, writes under a pseudonym (real name: Brooke Busey), moved to a big city (LA), made it big as a writer (hello, Oscar!), worked in the YA genre (she was hired to script a movie version of Sweet Valley High), is thirtysomething, was divorced, and was childless and unmarried until recently. (congrats on both!) She may have felt like a hotshot writer, but when she returned home and found her old classmates had less glamorous lives with a family in the burbs, did she have a pang of jealousy? The young adult publishing industry really seems like a cover for Hollywood, while allowing Cody to ruminate on growing up and not letting the past define you forever. And like I said, Mavis does not write adult novels in the end.
Overall, I loved Young Adult, and it's a shame movies like this are so rare. It has a strong shot of being nominated at the Golden Globes for Best Comedy and Best Actress - Comedy. Its box office prospects are decent. This is not a mainstream movie, so word-of-mouth may not reflect how the critics feel.
Young Adult opens December 16. Are you planning to see it?