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Young Adult (2011)

Today’s cinema adventure: Young Adult, the 2011 feature by writer Diablo Cody (Juno) and director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air).  Charlize Theron stars as Mavis, a hard-drinking thirty-something writer of teen romance novels, who attempts to resolve her fractured emotional life by returning to her small hometown and stealing her former high school sweetheart away from his wife and infant daughter.  Ostensibly a dark comedy, this piece is in fact a character study- and a bleak one- which hinges on the performance of Theron as its central character, and she rises brilliantly to the occasion.  The actress won an Oscar for playing a serial killer in Monster, and she equals that work here with her portrait of another kind of “monster,” an alcoholic whose arrested emotional development has her teetering on the brink of self-destruction, trying to use prom queen tactics in a grown-up world and unconcerned with the havoc she wreaks on the lives of those around her; but, even as Mavis’ downward spiral becomes increasingly embarrassing and her behavior grows more and more hateful, Theron succeeds in capturing the spark of humanity that allows us to see through the affectation and attitude to which she so desperately clings, and makes it possible, if not to sympathize with her, at least to understand her- and, a little unsettlingly, even to relate to her.  Providing a counterpoint to Mavis’ delusional shenanigans is Patton Oswalt, as an old schoolmate (disabled by a savage beating which may have been at least partly her fault) whose ability to see through her façade makes him both an antagonist and an unlikely ally; he delivers an unsentimental performance that keeps the character likeable while still underlining the dysfunctions that affect his own broken life.  Patrick Wilson, as the object of Mavis’ obsessions, is cast once more as the stolid-but-faded golden boy, a part which he fills to a tee- though it would have been nice to see his character laced with a little more of the darkness he has so brilliantly essayed in similar roles (Angels in America, Little Children, Watchmen).  The remainder of the cast is largely relegated to the background, where they serve as foils for the one-woman-show they surround; indeed, one of the film’s most significant characters is the scenery itself, an authentically realized small-town suburbia full of the bland and familiar icons of Middle American life, which provides a constant reminder of the comforting-and-maddening mediocrity from which- or to which- so many of us wish to escape.  As for the work of the film’s masterminds, Cody’s screenplay is full of the kind of edgy hipster irony we have come to expect from her, infusing the dialogue with a double-edged wit that makes us cringe even as we chuckle; and Reitman’s direction displays his easy skill with visual storytelling, effortlessly blending revelatory character detail and thematic reinforcement within the straight-and-steady unfolding of the narrative.  It should be said, however, that Young Adult, though strong on observation, comes up a bit short when it comes to insight; in the end, despite the exposure of numerous key moments in Mavis’ life, we are really no closer to understanding what makes her tick.  Still, perhaps it is wrong to expect easy answers in a story about an alcoholic’s decline; and even though Young Adult  lacks the disarming freshness of Juno or the unexpected emotional resonance of Up in the Air, both its creators deserve considerable praise for making a film brave enough to favor realism over sentiment by refusing to redeem or resolve.  Though there are plenty of genuine laughs here (albeit somewhat morbid ones), this film is not for the squeamish; the rest of us, however, will be refreshed by the rare honesty behind it- and rewarded by the magnificent performance of its leading player, who continues to prove that, as beautiful as she is, it is her talent that makes her a star.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1625346/

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