This reteaming of Juno director (Jason Reitman) and writer (Diablo Cody) is a fiercely dark character comedy that once again demonstrates the pair’s refusal to be limited by genre conventions, no matter how sacred. The set-up is straightforward enough: recently divorced writer Mavis (Charlize Theron) decides on a whim to leave her bombsite Minneapolis apartment and drive back to her tiny hometown in order to win back Buddy (Patrick Wilson), her one-time college sweetheart. But Buddy is now a happily married new father, a fact that Mavis has convinced herself can only be superficially true; how, goes her reasoning, could anyone really be happy in a hick town where nothing of significance ever happens? Buddy obviously needs to be rescued.
It all sounds far-fetched enough to make for standard quirky rom-com material that will all rather improbably but reassuringly turn out nice in the end. But despite initial appearances, Young Adult is not that kind of film; somewhat daringly, Reitman and Cody are aiming for something much more truthful and ultimately more painful. Mavis is a conceited car-crash of a woman - the prom-queen who never grew up - and her solipsistic worldview and searing tactlessness are not character foibles that can be neatly ironed out by this story’s end. Theron’s performance was ignored by the Oscars in favour of more family-friendly fare, but in truth her portrayal of Mavis is perfectly judged, and delivered with an unflinching disregard for audience sympathy that few actresses of her standing would have the guts to go through with. The film also features a very strong supporting turn from Patton Oswalt, one of the great ‘where-do-I-know-him-from?’ character actors who, as Matt, the formerly ignored high-school nerd attempting to deal some truth back to Mavis, brings a touch of warmth and acts as a much-needed go-between for the audience.
As in his previous film Up in the Air, Reitman is interested here in offering a patient, perceptive and often very funny analysis of a problematic character. But where the former film was subtly subversive, particularly in its conclusion, here Reitman wears his rebellion on his sleeve. Young Adult’s consistently jarring tone, powered by Cody’s crackling self-aware dialogue, further confirms Reitman’s instinct for original approaches to storytelling. And as a bonus, the film will delight fans of peerless Scottish indie band Teenage Fanclub, whose song The Concept is the cornerstone of the film’s perfectly selected 90s rock soundtrack.
This review was originally published at The List's Film website.