Charlize Theron plays a divorced fiction writer who returns to her hometown and is determined to seduce her former high-school boyfriend away from his wife and newborn in Young Adult, the second collaboration from director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody. And although Theron's troubled character seems to be stuck in a permanent state of arrested adolescence, the creative duo who scored a sleeper hit with Juno just four years ago show that they are maturing by presenting a story that never takes the easy way out, straddling the line between awkward laughs and uncomfortable satire while milking '90s nostalgia with near-fetishistic fervor.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) may not be a household name, but the novels she writes sit on the bookshelves of teenagers all across America. The ghostwriter behind a successful series of tween tomes, Mavis just can't seem to summon the inspiration needed to bring the series to a close when she receives an invitation to a baby shower from Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). Mavis and Buddy were inseparable back in high school, but now Buddy is married to Beth (Elizabeth Reaser). They've just had their first child and they want to celebrate the new arrival with friends and family. However, Mavis is convinced that she can sweep Buddy away from a drab life of breast milk and dirty diapers, and she returns home determined to make that happen. Shortly after arriving, Mavis has an unexpected reunion with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), the former high-school misfit best remembered as the victim of a vicious bullying incident. As Mavis plots to lure Buddy back to the big city, Matt attempts to convince her that it's wiser to live in the present rather than pine for the past.
We've all known people like Mavis Gary -- those who measure their success by the distance they've put between themselves and their hometown, and their personal worth by the level of fame they've achieved compared to their former classmates. Driven characters are nothing new on the silver screen, but what makes Mavis a bit more compelling than many of her upwardly mobile counterparts is the attention to detail that Reitman and Cody put into depicting her. The once-popular series of tween books ghostwritten by Mavis are nearing the end of their run, eclipsed by the current flavor of the month, which leaves her uncertain of her future in fiction. From the moment we first meet Mavis her desperation is palpable, and Theron brings the subtle details of her troubled state to the surface with a skill that allows us to relate to the character, even if it's impossible to sympathize with her. As a result, Young Adult constantly straddles a fine line between tragic and humorous that may prove off-putting to casual viewers. Those capable of savoring the film's sweet-and-sour tone, however, won't necessarily mind the fact that the protagonist is the least-likable person in the film. Though few of the supporting characters get substantial screen time, Patton Oswalt stands out in his role as a bullied former classmate who strikes up an unlikely, somewhat contentious friendship with Mavis, and a climactic scene with his character's sister may be just the role to catapult Collette Wolf from bit player to featured performer.
Yet despite the complex characters, insightful dialogue, and assured direction, Young Adult is so anchored in the 1990s that it's difficult to tell if its appeal will extend to viewers who didn't grow up on grunge. But if you've still got a tape deck in your car and a soft spot for Suede, odds are good that you'll find something to relate to.
Over the course of his brief but impressive career behind the camera, Reitman has proven time and again that he can successfully maintain an uncomfortable, even dark tone while finding a balance between deeply personal drama and cutting satire. And by downplaying her highly stylized dialogue, Cody injects the story with more substance than her detractors may have thought possible. Watching Juno, it was easy to get the impression that one voice was driving all of the characters; in Young Adult, everyone has a distinct personality, and as a result, the drama resonates more effectively. The pop-culture snark is still present on the periphery, but in this case, it supports the story rather than acts as the foundation it was built on.