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Mavis Gary isn't bitter.
Well, all right, she's a little bitter. Ummm. Make that a lot bitter. After all, she was the one always thought of as the prettiest girl with the most potential. She was the one all the guys wanted. She was the one who broke free from the paralyzing grip of hick-town life in Mercury, Minn., to take Minneapolis by storm. She was the one who landed a primo spot as a ghostwriter for a popular series of young adult novels. SHE. DID. ALL. THAT. So why is her life so … not cool?
Her thirtysomething existence now boils down to a swirl of booze, reality TV, fashion magazines, booze, writer's block, horrid blind dates, brain-numbing hangovers and more booze. Rinse and repeat.
And now it's come to this. The manuscript for the last book in her nearly dead series is due and she hasn't come up with a single page. Her editor is hounding her day and night. And she just got an email reporting that her high school ex, Buddy, and his plain little wife have become parents. Arrgh!
Maybe if she tosses our her latest hook-up and takes a road trip back home to Dullsville she can steal Buddy back. Yeah, that's it! She can ply him with a few hard Jacks, play the old songs, flash a bit of her old sizzlin' stuff, and Buddy'll be putty in her hands. It'll be a new beginning! A high point in the midst of a lot of lows.
Buddy's got baggage, of course. That newborn baby thing is a problem. But her baggage is bigger than his, anyway. And they can beat it together, right? After all, that's the kind of girl Mavis Gary is!
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
In a subtle way, Young Adult promotes marriage and family. It shows Buddy and his wife, Beth, publically professing their love for each other and supporting each other. And even though having a new baby presents its challenges, Buddy is unquestionably dedicated to his wife and daughter.
He does get a bit drunk and end up kissing Mavis at one point, but he quickly regains his senses and rejects any of her further advances. In fact, Buddy and Beth's happiness is repeatedly highlighted by serving as a counterpoint to Mavis and her narcissistic choices—which lead to deep personal unhappiness.
The movie also makes it clear that people can bounce back from horrible life-changing events if they choose to. As a teen, Mavis' cousin Mike was in a car accident that left him in a wheelchair. By the time we see him, however, he's a vivacious soul who's made the necessary adjustments and has learned to love life and those around him. In contrast, Matt—a guy who went to high school with Mavis and Buddy—was badly beaten and crippled as a young man and can't seem to get past his physical and emotional pain.
In an attempt to grab Buddy's attention, Mavis regularly wears low-cut and formfitting outfits. When we first see her, she staggers, hung-over, to her bathroom mirror, reaches up under her T-shirt and peels off two push-up cups. Later, she strips off her dress while wearing only those two flesh-colored coverings on top and pantyhose and panties below.
Mavis asks Matt to go get "hammered" with her in the woods behind the school—a place she later remembers being called "hump city." She admits to having sex with a couple of different guys there. And she blurts out to a crowd that Buddy got her pregnant when they were dating. (She lost the child in a miscarriage.)
Mavis has a really bad date with some random guy. Still, we see her wake in bed the next morning with him draped across her. (He's shirtless.) Matt talks candidly about his sexual dysfunction thanks to the beating he took as a teen. But that doesn't stop him from stripping down with Mavis and crawling into bed with her as the camera cuts away. We see them again later, covered by a sheet.
Beth is part of an all-girl band called "Nipple Confusion." Mavis talks about giving Buddy oral sex.
Matt recounts how a couple of high school jocks beat him mercilessly because they thought he was gay. The assault left him crippled and scarred, walking with a cane. We see his badly scarred legs.
Crude or Profane Language
A dozen-plus f-words and about 10 s-words. There are also two or three uses each of "a‑‑," "h‑‑‑" and "b‑‑ch." God's and Jesus' names are misused 10 or more times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
When Mavis returns to her parents' house for a brief visit, she casually comments that she thinks she's an alcoholic. They laugh off her statement, but we already know just how accurate it is. In fact, she drinks like a fish, alone and with friends, throughout the movie. Several times she consoles herself by sitting at a bar and downing six or seven hard drinks in a row with beer chasers. She's regularly either tipsy or staggering drunk. After one drunken evening she drives her car into a light pole in her hotel's parking lot. In another case, she reacts to rejection by quickly swilling several glasses of wine and then making a public spectacle of herself—blurting out hurtful comments she later regrets.
Mavis' apartment is a scattered mess of empty or partially empty alcohol bottles. She repeatedly drags herself up in the morning, after drinking the night before, guzzling a liter bottle of Coke to shock her system awake.
Buddy, too, drinks so much at the bar one night that he can't drive himself home.
One of Mavis' favorite songs includes the line, "She don't do drugs, but she does the pill." We hear it repeated a number of times. Matt has a distillery in his garage, and he and Mavis toss back bottles of his homemade bourbon on several occasions. Guests at a baby dedication drink some sort of wine punch.
Other Negative Elements
After connecting at the bar, Matt and Mavis spend a lot of time together, feeding off each other's misery and disappointment in life. Mavis accuses Matt of letting his physical disabilities be an excuse to never move on with his life. Matt retorts, "God knows you don't know s‑‑‑ about being an adult!" Not that Matt's sister realizes that; she looks up to Mavis and fantasizes about being her and moving to Minneapolis too. "Everyone here is fat and dumb," she grouses.
We see Mavis nervously pulling her hair out, leaving little bald spots on her head.
Charlize Theron is one of those Hollywood actresses who isn't averse to playing a less-than-appealing character, often choosing acting roles over promotion roles. And with Mavis Gary she delivers a believable rendition of a narcissistic, sour succubus with all the appeal of a foaming, boozy pit bull.
Mavis is part of a dark dramedy that attempts to deliver a sardonic take on the growing tendency in our society for people to not grow out of the self-absorbed salad days of youth. It uses Mavis as a symbol of a selfish generation that's seriously deluded about its own reality.
"Just about every young to middle-aged adult I know is like Mavis," says Young Adult's screenwriter, Diablo Cody (well know for her work on Juno) in a Newsweek article. "Sure, we're not all deranged home wreckers in pursuit of past glory. But if the era of Facebook and Twitter has fed any monsters, it's those of vanity, self-obsession and immaturity."
In that article, titled "The Narcissist Decade," Cody waxes on with witty charm about the trends she's seen spring up around her. In fact, she almost succeeds in making you think of her self-focused Mavis character as amusing and even appealing. It's a sentiment that doesn't translate to the screen, though. And maybe that's a good thing. Maybe we should be seeing this kind of person as abominable instead of funny.
In Young Adult, Mavis is obnoxious and so obviously self-obsessed that you can't think of very many good reasons to bother with her. It's the people she sees as "small town hicks" who are actually the ones with happy lives. But the journey to that revelation is a long and tedious one, filled with foolish choices and spent almost entirely with someone who never actually gets the point.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary; Elizabeth Reaser as Beth Slade; Patrick Wilson as Buddy Slade; Patton Oswalt as Matt Freehauf
December 9, 2011
March 13, 2012