Thursday, June 21, 2012

Young Adult: An Enjoyable Train Wreck

Is it possible to have a positive experience viewing a film about someone detestable? I wouldn't have thought so. In fact I was so conflicted about my feelings for this film I debated even writing about it because my reaction and opinion both flip-flopped at least once a day (and it's been almost a week). Director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Smoking, Up In The Air) seems to have a unique talent for making dysfunctional social awkwardness both tragic and funny, for bringing honestly colorful performances from his actors, and for forcing the discomfort of real-life scenarios, many of them unpleasant, onto his audiences with no effort to sugar-coat anything---and all that is truly impressive, but this little tale was different. Between severe writhing (in embarassment for the main character), hating her, and wondering whether or not it was appropriate to laugh, I obviously felt something for the film, I just don't think it can be identified yet.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a writer of Young Adult fiction; from the first moment we see her we realize that her life is not exactly a happy one. Maybe she's a cliche writer who's just a heavy-drinking, downer of a person, or maybe she's upset at her parents for naming her Mavis, who knows? Between slugging diet coke, sometimes tending to her dog, and constantly subjecting herself to dysfunctional reality television programs, Mavis hammers out pages for her latest YA novel, which is to be the last in a cancelled series. In between paragraphs, she finds in her email a birth announcement for her ex-boyfriend's new baby daughter ("the best thing that ever happened to us.") After printing out the baby's picture and reflecting for a while, Mavis inexplicably drops everything, packs a bag, and heads off to her hometown, Mercury, Minnesota, where the ex-boyfriend and his family still live, apparently in effort to win him back. Things don't go well. 
So what makes the character of Mavis so detestable? She's insensitive; her ex-boyfriend is just supposed to drop everything (including his wife and daughter) because she decides they should be together? She's deluded (see above). She's callous; after running into an old classmate at the bar who had been beaten with crowbars during their senior year, she's curious only about the attention he gained from the accident and if his genitalia still worked afterwards. Once she meets up with Buddy, the ex, Mavis becomes downright unbearable; it's obvious he's happy, and sees her only as a friend. Her advances and overblown attempts at getting him to reminicse over the good old days are embarassing and sad, yet she refuses to give up. There are moments of insight into who Mavis really is, and these are vital to the film since without them she'd be absolutely rude and boring instead of just rude----her drinking is significant, she seems upset over her divorce, she pulls out strands of her hair, one by one, and the only time she manages to dress like an adult is when she's going to the bar or crashing in on Buddy. Any writer will pick up on the fact that she is clearly unhappy with what she's doing, creatively, but one also can't help noticing how comfortable she is in her series' YA genre---catty, self-important, teen-queen characters whose utterances come directly from what she overhears in food courts . . . Mavis is writing herself, over and over. 
As a production, the film was very well-cast, but Patton Oswalt was huge in its overall success (if you can call it that). His character, Matt Freehauf, isn't exactly thrilled with life, either, but he manages to bring light and humanity to a film that would have drowned itself without him. In the film's most emotionally raw moment, Mavis stands half-naked and vulnerable among Matt's spliced comic statue figures, confessing to him why she's doing what she's doing; Matt (who knows exactly what he's getting into) simply listens and abides, unable to treat her as she's treated him and many. If there is a message in this film, Matt is a huge part of it. And though it's tempting to have a whole lot of disdain for a film that makes no secret of the fact that sometimes there are people who are just dead on the inside, I still think there's more going on than just that.
Also, I just can't hate a film where the main character listens to a pink and gold Memorex mixed tape. Just can't do it.