Young Adult is a dark comedy that confirms Diablo Cody (Juno) as a screenwriter of importance, eliminates the last shred of doubt that Jason Reitman is a major director and gives Charlize Theron her best showcase since Monster.
In fact, Young Adult is even better than Monster, in that it's not a stunt movie requiring a Halloween-costume performance but one in which the actress gets to show new skills and colors through her own familiar face.
In a seemingly casual way, Theron does something remarkable. She takes a character who should be unsympathetic — a condescending, delusional, unpleasant, amoral woman with no grace or kindness — and makes us feel for her. She does this, with the help of Reitman and Cody, by keying into the character's pain, making us recognize a sadness that the character herself doesn't even see.
Mavis (Charlize Theron) is in her early 30s, a time when the limits of life are first felt but the romance of the teen years is still a vivid memory. In her career, Mavis is almost successful. She writes young-adult novels for a popular series, but she really is a ghostwriter working off an outline. She lives in the city and feels grandly superior to the people back home, but she is thinking about them a lot more than they're thinking about her. Then one day, she finds out that her high school sweetheart and his wife have had a child, and she becomes possessed by the idea of returning home and stealing the ex from his family.
Young Adult achieves a specific tone that Reitman maintains throughout. It might be described as a combination of two perspectives, which throughout are viewing the action at a remove. The first perspective is that of Mavis, who is in some ways crazy and yet also is clear-eyed, in that she sees the blandness and provinciality of her Midwestern hometown. "Everyone here is fat and dumb," she says, and she is not exactly wrong.
The second perspective, closer to ours, is that of Matt, played by Patton Oswalt. Matt is Cody's most inspired creation, a poor guy whose life was wrecked in high school when he got shafted twice: First, he was the target of a hate crime, which gave him a permanent limp and made sex difficult. Second, he had the misfortune of being abandoned by the media and the authorities, once they realized he wasn't gay but was just mistaken for gay.
Matt sees everything that's absurd about Mavis — he understands that the ex-boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) is deliriously happy with his family and has no interest in her. He also understands that Mavis is absolutely miserable, just as miserable as Matt is, even if she doesn't know it.
This interaction between Matt and Mavis makes the movie. Matt is chubby, limping and a foot shorter than Mavis, so he knows he has no chance with her. Thus he has no reason not to be himself and tell her things she doesn't want to hear. As for Mavis, she thinks she is hanging out with Matt because there is nobody else in town, but in fact there is a connection — not romantic, exactly, but that of two people in a similar crisis of spirit. Through Oswalt (who has a beautiful sensitivity) and Theron, we see that connection almost instantaneously.
The filmmakers devise a series of funny, appalling scenes and many other smaller moments that are subtly awful, that can make your skin crawl with discomfort. In a good way. Between the laughs, it keeps its focus on Mavis' misery, and although it goes to soft places, it never goes soft on us. That's the best news of all: Young Adult is just as tough and caustic at the finish as at the start.