When: Thursday, 19 January - Wednesday, 15 February
Where: Various cinemas
How much: $15 - $20
Diablo Cody is a great screenwriter. Which is why it's particularly excellent that she's not idly pumping out Juno siblings but really testing the outer limits of what her stories can do. The United States of Tara and Jennifer's Body were quite a ride. Now her new comedy, Young Adult (again with Juno director Jason Reitman, who also did Up in the Air), tests whether an audience will go on the journey of a character who's not only all-out unlikeable but who's conventional arc of realisation and growth is undermined. The result is not perfect, but it's certainly ballsy.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a young adult fiction writer who can easily capture the mindset of a teenager, given that she's never left it herself. Mavis was the 'popular girl' in high school, and the passage of some 20 years has not changed her for the better. She's still vain, self-involved and insular, but now she wakes up each day hungover and in yesterday's full dress, plays Wii Fit for longer than she works, and has decided to leave the 'big city' (Mineappolis) to visit her home town and seduce her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who's happily married and recently become a father.
Naturally, everyone who gets wind of this personal quest is repulsed, including Matt (Patton Oswalt), the first classmate Mavis accidentally runs into, who once held up the inverse end of the school social ladder to Mavis. Still, the two soon strike up a camaraderie, ostensibly because of a shared interest in whiskey and jibes, but really because they're both stuck in the past. Matt was the victim of a teen gay bashing (despite not being gay) that still dominates his life, and he's kept up an earnest action-figure hobby. The interest in this film comes from seeing if each of these tragic figures can initiate the other into adulthood.
Cody and Reitman get a long way toward achieving their pleasingly un-Hollywood goals. There are times you feel truly sorry for Mavis. At others, you share a bit of her contempt for unquestioningly happy suburbanites. On a few frightening occasions, she's actually relatable (who hasn't smugly contemplated the lives of schoolmates still stuck in Esperance, presumably looking after kids and animals and natural disaster insurance and not enjoying this coffee you wrested from the impossible end of a Surry Hills queue?). This is hugely due to Theron's performance, which is delightfully maniacal. But you don't want things to go her way, and that poses some problems for the enjoyability of the movie.
Young Adult also can't seem to decide what to do with mental illness; it's the only plausible reason Mavis acts the way she does, and the film acknowledges that she's an alcoholic and depressive. But in their determination to make her detestable, Cody and Reitman also don't attribute to her any pre-existing redeemable features. They want to have it both ways — she was always a sociopath and she's recently depressed — so the character comes off an unfinished muddle whose journey is subverted in more than just the way they intend. Fortunately, she's an unfinished muddle it's fun spending time with.