Friday, December 9, 2011

Young Adult

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

The first thing that viewers should know about Young Adult (directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody) is that though, IMHO, the film is excellent, it follows a trend of young adult oriented "comedies" that are both funny and "not really that funny" / "more than just funny." (One thinks of recent "comedies" / "rom/coms" like Love and Other Drugs [2010], The Dilemma [2011], Tyler Perry's Big Happy Family [2011], Something Borrowed [2011], One Day [2011], or 50/50 [2011]).  Sure there's plenty of humor in the film, but the humor's there to keep the audience engaged (and arguably not crying) as some fairly tough stuff is presented in the midst of the laughs.

Both Reitman (Thank You for Not Smoking [2005], Juno [2007], Up in the Air [2009]) and Cody (Juno [2007], Jennifer's Body [2009]) have made careers of humor that is often both funny and pointed.  And there has been a long tradition extending from medieval courts to the films of present day actor Robin Williams (of whom I've been a lifelong fan) where it was left to the "court jester" to bring-up matters (always indirectly and with a smile) which would have been difficult to impossible to talk about otherwise.

So Young Adult falls in this tradition of being both funny and "hey, wait a minute, wasn't this film supposed to be funny?"  And it is perhaps because of the serious aspects of the film that an often serious actress, Charlize Theron (Cider House Rules [1999], Monster [2003]), decided to take it on.

But let's get to the movie ... Young Adult is about late-30 something (no longer so young) former popular girl / high school beauty queen Mavis Gary (played by Charlize Theron) who had long ago left the small town (Mercury, Minnesota) of her youth for the glamour of the "big city" (Minneapolis).

Life in the big city hasn't altogether so glamorous.  True she's "made it" (sort of) as a writer and lives in a high rise condo.  But she lives alone, divorced; her condo's strewn with garbage as it's clear that she's working (as a ghost writer for a "past its prime" young adult romance series) under a great deal of pressure; and when she's not staring at her laptop or listening in on conversations (and picking-up new jargon) among teens/young adults of today (at fast food joints and malls) she's drinking, heavily.  But at least she's not living back home in Mercury, and she (by-and-large rightly) assumes that most of her former kinfolk and classmates remain jealous of her.

So what makes her want to return home?  Well, she gets a seemingly innocuous e-mail from her old high school flame Buddy Slade (played by Patrick Wilson) informing her and the rest of "the gang" that he and his wife, Beth (played by Elizabeth Reaser) just had a baby girl.  After years of not thinking much of her small town past, she decides to go back to Mercury, Minnesota to take back Buddy (even though he is clearly married and with a child) to "save" him from his "awful fate."  Is she nuts?

Much of the movie plays along with the thesis that she is radically self-absorbed and, yes, crazy.

The first person she meets, when she returns home is Matt Freehauf (played by Patton Oswalt) who she does not remember even though they had lockers next to each other through all four years of high school, and he certainly remembers her.  After much prodding she finally remembers, sort of: "Wait, aren't you the hate crime guy?"  He shakes his head somewhat in agreement and reminds her of the story.  During his junior year, he was savagely beaten up by "the jocks" (among them, her friends) because they thought he was gay.  It turned out that he wasn't even gay ("so it wasn't even a hate crime...") but the beating left him half-crippled and all but sexually impotent ever since (yes parents, though this is largely only discussed, the movie is rated appropriately R).

After this embarrassing and painful introduction after years of not having to think much about each other, Matt asks Mavis the obvious question: "What the heck are you doing back in town, now?"  She tells him of her plan.  Matt tells her the obvious: Buddy by all accounts seems happily married and now has a kid.  Matt and his mousy sister Sandra (played by College Wolfe) appear then repeatedly as the story progresses, playing the role of a traditional "Greek Chorus," repeatedly telling Mavis what we, the audience would like to tell her, mostly: "You're nuts, leave Buddy alone."  Of course she does not / can not ...

Near the end of the movie, we find out why Mavis can not let it go.  And it does make one want to cry and _may_ offer parents a teachable moment with their teens.  TO EXPLAIN, I HAVE TO REVEAL A KEY SPOILER but parents certainly should know and it actually enhances the value of the picture:  It turns out that "back in the day" (I don't remember now whether it was in late High School or College) Buddy had gotten Mavis pregnant.  Yet, three months into her pregnancy, she lost the child to a miscarriage.

Sex is often covered so superficially in the movies and on television, while "Mother Church" has always counseled caution with regard to premature (pre-marital) sexual activity (basically don't do it before marriage).  Here perhaps continuing where they left-off with Juno [2007] (another movie about teenage pregnancy) Reitman and Cody present another scenario that's both easily believable and heartrending: If miscarriage is difficult enough to deal with in the context of a happily married couple, how much more awful, difficult, confused this experience could be for a young woman, or couple, that had entered into the pregnancy outside the context of marriage and/or the maturity generally required to bring a child to term and then to raise him/her?  From my experience as a Catholic Priest in a parish, I can certainly attest to the fact that miscarriage can be a very difficult experience for even a married couple to deal with.

Thus a film that for the first 80% of it follows a "hah, hah, isn't she stupid, self-centered, etc?" trajectory becomes very different at the end. 

So congratulations Reitman and Cody (and Charlize Theron)!  On the other hand, if you were thinking of going to this movie for a "light evening" or "date"  think again.  There really isn't much that is "light" about it by the end.

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