The word “slight” could have been invented to describe Young Adult, the new collaboration from the director and screenwriter of Juno, the beautiful teen-pregnancy movie from 2007—which has a far more involved and involving plot and many more characters. By contrast, Young Adult tells a tiny little story with no twists and turns and only four characters of note; it unfolds over a few days in a Minnesota town and comes to an abrupt end with a black screen barely 90 minutes later. You stare at the screen as the titles roll, baffled that what you saw was all there is.
Dramatically insubstantial though it is, Young Adult is thematically rich and really rather sneaky. What seems to be an unsparing portrait of the prettiest mean girl in high school floundering two decades after her reign, Young Adult is in fact a full-bore defense of everyday Americans living homely lives in dull places in the middle of nowhere. Like Juno, which was also set in a Minnesota town, Young Adult contrasts the spiritual hollowness of wannabe sophisticates with the unassuming goodness of unpretentious people who are just trying to get through the day.
Charlize Theron plays Mavis, still drop-dead gorgeous at 36. Divorced, childless, and unmoored to life by anything except a furry little dog she can barely take care of, Mavis earns her keep ghostwriting a series of novels for teenage girls from an arid high-rise apartment in Minneapolis dominated by a big-screen television on which reality television plays in an endless loop. As the movie begins, she is having trouble completing what is to be the last book in the series, when she receives an email featuring a birth announcement—the baby of her high-school boyfriend. She cannot figure out why it was sent to her, but on the spur of the moment she decides to go back to her hometown of Mercury and do something about it.
Aside from her beauty, Mavis is all but bereft of redeeming virtues. She drinks too much, she sleeps around, she has no sense of humor, and her exaggerated opinion of her own self-worth is a thin mask for a deep sense of her own worthlessness. She is determined to win her old boyfriend back, but once we meet Buddy (Patrick Wilson), her passion for him seems misplaced. He is perfectly nice and perfectly dull, with a middle-management job at General Mills that allows him to have lunch with his dad most days. Buddy’s idea of a good time is to go have a beer at the new sports bar, Champion O’Malley’s.
Indeed, most everybody in Mercury is dull: her parents, the girl who works the desk at the Hampton Inn, the people at the bar, the people attending the christening of Buddy’s baby. Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody allow us to see Mercury through Mavis’s eyes, and it does indeed seem like a place to flee, without a shred of physical beauty and dominated by mall buildings. (Interestingly enough, the movie was shot not in Minnesota but on Long Island, in the depressing town of Massapequa.)
But then there is Buddy’s adorable wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), who plays the drums enthusiastically in a rock band made up of new mommies called Nipple Confusion. She is, as we discover through the course of the movie, a far more substantial and goodhearted person than we expect. And there is “the hate crime guy,” Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, in a memorable performance), so called because he was nearly beaten to death and left crippled when he and Mavis were in high school because the jocks thought he was gay. When it turned out he wasn’t, the story died down and Matt was left to take odd jobs and share a house with his terminally depressed sister and the action figures he paints.
Matt is the saddest of sad sacks, but he’s smart and funny and he’s onto Mavis, who confides her plan to rip Buddy from the bosom of his newly enlarged family and take him away from all this. But while Mercury has its failings, the movie asks, what is so special about Mavis’s life? Why would you trade Mercury for what she has?
There is something very wise and moving about Young Adult, and its depiction of Mavis is as refreshingly unsentimental as Theron’s performance. But the movie is so determined to expose the aridity of Mavis’s existence that it cheats itself. Had Cody and Reitman found a way to make Mavis and the escape she offers Buddy more seductive, a real battle might have been set up. But we see the dead-end nature of Mavis’s life in Minneapolis before we are given a close-up view of the banality of the life in Mercury, so that it’s not much of a contest. And when the dull people of Mercury prove to have more moral mettle than Mavis realizes, it might come as a surprise to her but it doesn’t come as a surprise to us.
Young Adult could have been a small classic; as it is, it’s just a small, decent, small film. Did I mention small?
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.