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Young Adult Review: A Singular, Challenging, Hilarious Drama

This prickly and challenging film smartly challenges our expectations of the character-driven drama, and thanks to Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt's impressive performances, has the makings of a cult favourite.

rating: 3.5

It goes without saying that Charlize Theron is likely to earn a fair share of awards attention for her rabble-rousing turn in Jason Reitman's new drama Young Adult, but the film is almost inevitably going to disappoint at the crunch, because it is so keenly pointed against the sort of films that tend to win Academy Awards. Reitman, whose exceptional Up in the Air was nominated for Best Picture in 2010, aggressively attacks convenient character turns and ineffectual sentiment here, with a harsh, dark, refreshingly honest drama that is nevertheless liable to strike Academy members as probably too honest, and too critical of the works that quite typically garner a Best Picture nomination. Theron plays Mavis Gary, a dysfunctional, messy, middle-aged woman whose career writing teen literature is winding to a close. After being a sent an e-mail celebrating the fact that her ex-boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), has had a daughter with his wife, Beth (Elisabeth Reaser), Mavis decides to return to her hometown and try to claim him back. A fellow attendee of Mavis' school, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), bumps into Mavis at a bar, and upon getting wind of her scheme, disapproves and tries to get her on the straight and narrow, while dealing with problems of his own. Its detractors might complain that Young Adult is "creepy" and entirely lacking in virtues like sympathy, catharsis and redemption for its complicated protagonist. To criticise the film on these grounds is to somewhat miss the point that Reitman is making, and indeed, the director has himself apologised to anyone who came along to see another Juno. Rather, stripping down the self-conscious quirk that rendered that film ultimately quite irritating despite its many strong elements, Reitman has crafted what in many ways feels like his most identifiable - not to mention, caustic and angry - work to date. One of the bravest mainstream dramas of recent years, Young Adult dares to present its protagonist within a narrative and stylistic mode that we might initially appropriate as comedic, then renders her virtually impossible to like, and by tale's end finds very little avenue for her to change, as is often true in life. While comedies about emotionally stunted men have been box offices hits for the likes of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, this film, as a drama, and specifically, one focused on a woman-child, creates a very different atmosphere altogether. Had Mavis been a man and Buddy a girl, one might easily dismiss this story as sleazy and grimy; it ekes out our own firm double standards of gender and superficiality, for Theron, a selfish, careless, mentally damaged woman, can easily be described as much worse, but with her pretty face and slender figure, we might find it in ourselves to try and take it easy on her. Convinced that Buddy is held hostage by a wife and daughter he doesn't want, Mavis creates a fantasy in her own mind of seducing him and breaking him out from his imprisonment, such that they can run away together to the city like they had planned as youngsters. Naturally, things don't go her way, and her invitation to several of Buddy's social occasions - a peculiar motion that is later explained - creates some squeamishly awkward situations, usually causing Mavis to drink too much and embarrass herself. Reitman, a deft dramatist, is smart not to lean too much on any emotional crutches for Mavis that might easily explain away her actions; her parents are kind and caring, she has money, is well-regarded for her work (diminishing though its returns are), and seems to simply wants to take for herself that which she missed out on the first time due to admittedly harrowing circumstances (which still in no way explain her current behaviour). Theron plays the part wonderfully; it's her first starring turn in three years and presents a very different Charlize to the one we're used to. She infuses what could easily have been a simplistically juvenile adult with some profoundly adult issues, and renders a character who, while hilariously deluded at times, remains absolutely impossible to warm to throughout, all the more impressive given the against-type nature of her turn, struggling not to look glamourous in pink yoga bottoms and a Hello Kitty T-shirt. Patton Oswalt should also be singled out for his fantastic supporting work; surely the film's most likable and sympathetic character, though taking enough of a back seat that we don't warm to Mavis by proxy, Matt's attempts to derail Mavis' despicable plan generates a fair share of the film's laughs, and like Mavis, change - that is, letting go of a decades-old assault in high school, which left him crippled - is hard to come by, albeit with far less incendiary circumstances. Reitman's film is ultimately easier to respect than it is to like, firmly opposed to the traditional narrative trajectory of troublesome characters, shearing its Oscar prospects at the very same time. This prickly and challenging film smartly confronts our expectations of the character-driven drama, and thanks to Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt's impressive performances, has the makings of a cult favourite. Young Adult is out now in the UK.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.