Young Adult is a knockout
In reference to Monster (2003), Charlize Theron has said, “People just aren’t willing to see conflict, or ugliness or the more flawed side of life through a female character’s eyes. I mean, can you imagine a woman playing Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver ? When Robert De Niro does it it’s fine, [but] people are very uncomfortable about seeing that through a woman’s eyes. We aren’t allowed complexity.” One can find support for Theron’s indictment of cinematic gender roles in any number of titles: the brutal head-basher of Raging Bull, the greedy tycoon of Citizen Kane, the rambling homeless bloke of Naked. In recent years, including this one, we’ve seen multiple male protagonists who are less than easy to sympathize with: Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (a frustrating blank-slate), Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (a near personification of evil), Dave Brown in Rampart (“corrupt cop” is only a starting point), Joseph in Tyrannosaur (his first act onscreen would be enough justification, for some, to grab the remote). The list can go on and on. Meanwhile, women are relegated to parts like the suffering housewife or the adulterous seducer or the saint who overcomes adversity to expose societal injustices. We rarely see women at the center of serious films, let alone films that grant them flaws, depth, and agency. In Monster, Theron got the chance to be ugly, but she also got the chance to illustrate that roles like the corrupt cop or the serial killer or the drug-addled opportunist should not be stockpiled in some sort of “Men Only” file. It’s time for films built around women, written for women, with parts that speak to the human complexity on both sides of the gender aisle.
Young Adult propels us in that direction. And Theron proves once again that she’s willing to risk turning an audience off if it means that she can explore what it’s like to live in the skin of a damaged, revolting women. It’s probably an over-used line on the film, but Mavis Gary is as sickening on the inside as she is staggering on the outside. But like the male roles listed above, Theron’s character accumulates sympathy for the mere fact that she is human. Deep down, she’s empty. She’s in need of love. Just like Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty, Mavis puts her face together every morning, blindly projecting success even as her soul reeks of failure. Her corrosive alcoholism precludes the waterfalls of tears that would no doubt emerge without it. While many of these sentiments sound trite and on-the-nose, they are shown very cleverly in this deceptively simple film. Mavis is at once alien and relatable, a comic construction that begs for condescension and a translucent mirror that points out the grimy corners of our lives. One thing that’s amazing about Young Adult is the way that it takes what appears to be a cute, inconsequential, throw-away premise (ripe for easy laughs) and deliberately grows it into a resonant, layered, tragic piece of work. We start with what might be a satire of our air-headed culture and increasingly plunge into the realm of all-out horror-show. The final, nightmarish meltdown forces us to keep watching long after we need a breather, as we stew in the most nerve-pinching personification of self-delusion this side of Blanche DuBois. Young Adult gets uncomfortably close to the bone, and considering that this studio effort is able to simultaneously maximize entertainment value, it is a considerable achievement and a product to be proud of, regardless of what the box office might say.
Young Adult could have easily become a precious trifle of a comedy. The Kardashian-watching, Hello Kitty-wearing middle-aged woman is a girl who never grew up. Mavis is in princess-stasis, sporting an unearned sense of entitlement and a presumption that the world will bend over backward to make her happy. She’s the Homecoming queen who has jocks standing in line and nerds admiring from afar. Etc.,etc., etc. Now watch her snip at people and demand attention and struggle to properly function in an environment that’s not high-school. And we get some of that—a woman pushing forty who steals lines from fifteen year-olds, dressing up for a sports bar like it’s the red carpet. But we soon stop laughing at her and start feeling sorry for her (or start hating her, depending on who you are). Lying about a dog in her purse is child’s play, and scoffing at a man who enjoyed teaching in South East Asia is only a mild sample of what’s to come. Mavis plows through the narrative like a tornado, spitefully destroying those nice enough to care and unwittingly destroying those who don’t. So stalwart is her delusion that when she finally collapses, she does so less out of precise reflexivity and more out of misplaced heartbreak. She needs to change, but if pressed, she probably couldn’t say how, why, or what. Another interesting aspect of this film is that it doesn’t ask too much sympathy for Mavis. There’s a scene where she abruptly says that she think she’s an alcoholic, and her mother responds by laughing it off. Too many instances like this could hazard victimizing Mavis, turning her into a girl not taken seriously by the world because she’s too pretty for problems. But it never tips overwhelmingly into either area. We are all victims of something as often as we are perpetrators of something else.
The final two-handed scene is a stunner, a conversation that starts in one place and ends in an entirely different one, with shades both hallucinatory and hopeful built in between the lines. Self-awareness can be a catalyst for change, but it does not constitute enough change of itself to be redemptive. And this film illustrates how malleable self-awareness can be, how it can itself be illusory. Young Adult is like watching Blanche beg for the shades to remain on the light bulbs. It’s like watching Sara Goldfarb wait for her big television call and fantasize about the red dress. It’s like watching Mary from Another Year convince herself that a new car will turn her life around. As Mavis drives out of the narrative in a beat-up Mini Cooper, we’re not sure where her path will lead. But we have an idea, because hope placed in the wrong location is really only hope to the person placing it there. To everyone else, it’s not hope at all. It’s tragedy. Young Adult is a painful (but not unwatchably so) illustration of this quote from Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry: “All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.”