In ‘Young Adult,’ Reitman finds dark, destructive romance in the fluorescent-lit, personality-free corporate commodity zone

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Charlize Theron in 'Young Adult.' ()
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Mark Sussman

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You can tell a lot about a film by the way it treats its animals.

Young Adult, the new film directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, gives us only one animal, an affectionate little dog belonging to Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron). In the film’s opening sequence, a hungover Mavis opens a plastic container of cheap food for the dog, lures it onto the balcony of her generic condo, and shuts the door behind it. Later we see the dog locked in a cage while Mavis is sleeping next to a stranger, then transferred from the cage directly into a purse and taken on a road trip, then delivered from the purse to a hotel room, where Mavis leaves it for the duration of the film. The little dog, cute, pathetic, needy like dogs are, and unnaturally isolated, displays most of the qualities Mavis sees in her fellow humans, and she treats it with the appropriate degree of callousness. When a character spends this much time neglecting an icon of adorableness, there’s little doubt how we’re supposed to see things.

In this, Young Adult outs itself as not only a black comedy but a nihilistic one. Like L.Q. Jones’s A Boy and His Dog and the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading before it, Young Adult revels in its own negativity.

Cody’s last feature, the sorely underrated Jennifer’s Body (2009), portrayed the mean girl as a literal man-eating demon rather than a failed writer—Mavis is what Jennifer (Megan Fox) might have become if she hadn’t been turned into a succubus.

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Critics seemed to find the gutbucket horror of Jennifer’s Body too tame and its feminism too conflicted, and the film barely managed to recoup its $16-million budget. Cody initially gained some notoriety for the slangy one-liners in her debut Juno (also directed by Reitman).

More of the same cropped up again in Jennifer’s Body, but they’re largely absent from Young Adult. None of the characters, with the exception that Matt Freehauf, sensitively portrayed by Patton Oswalt, seems sharp enough to actually deliver a one-liner.

Like Jennifer, Mavis is an ugly person, either despite or because of her physical beauty. Young Adult follows her, a ghostwriter for a once-popular series of young adult novels, as she travels from Minneapolis to her hometown to try to break up the marriage of her high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). When he sends her a picture of his newborn daughter, she sees it as a cry for help, and she makes the trek back to Mercury, Minnesota, a place she openly loathes.

Hanging around, waiting to win Buddy back, she runs into Matt, a former classmate who was beaten so badly in high school by jocks wielding crowbars that he’s since been left with bad legs and deformed genitalia.

As Mavis spends more time back home, she begins a steady devolution into adolescence—she idealizes Buddy and moons over him, drinks in the woods behind the football field, and examines the nerd paraphernalia (Frankensteinian reassembled comic-book action figures) in Matt’s bedroom with the popular girl’s anthropological half-interest in a worshipful dork.

Buddy, it turns out, is a pleasant, slightly dim dude, and he likes his life just fine. Matt and Mavis’s relationship recapitulates the familiar dynamics of John Hughes-style nerd-goddess love, and it’s the one place in the film where Mavis’s alienation gets some respite: Matt acts as the conscience Mavis never had, while she comes to rely on him for company, and then for advice, and finally for comfort. When he utters the line, “Guys like me were born loving girls like you,” we get a glimpse of the tragedy of his dedication and his acceptance of its inevitability.

Despite the familiarity of Matt and Mavis’s friendship, Young Adult’s darkness keeps it from simply trudging down the well-worn path of belated teen romance. As Mavis’s attempts to ensnare Buddy progress from flirtation to attempted seduction to stalking, it becomes clear that Mavis is not only a self-destructive narcissist but also undergoing a nervous breakdown. We start to piece together a vision of the decline that followed her high school glory days, when she was loved, feared, and idolized, and led to her muted grown-up existence in a gray Minneapolis high rise: a faltering career, a failed marriage, and a drinking problem.

It’s at this point that our initial image of Mavis as a dog-ignoring mean girl gets complicated, both because the film encourages at least a sliver of sympathy for her, and because we kind of see why someone would hate Mercury. Buddy tells her that Mercury is becoming more like a big city because a Chipotle is opening up in the local mall, and the strained look on Mavis’s face is one we’re meant to share.

But Mavis is most comfortable in places like fast food restaurants and squirms when she enters anywhere less impersonal, nervously insulting the Slades’ homey combination of Pier 1 and thrift store decor.

In both Young Adult and his previous film, Up in the Air, Reitman evinces a fascination with such isolated, corporately controlled, sterile spaces—McMansions, malls, convention centers, Chipotle. In a way, Reitman’s filmmaking is at home in these airless places of transience; his steady, edgeless camera work and consistently tight framing constitute the cinematic equivalent of an unobjectionable airport coffee shop, narrow, anonymous, and all-encompassing. Mavis spends all of her free time in these spaces—wandering through a Target, writing at a table at K.F.C., buying a bad baby shower gift at Buy Buy Baby, so we spend a lot of time in them too.

These are the places, Reitman seems to say, where Mercury and Minneapolis, the small town and the cosmopolis, find common ground: in fluorescent-lit, personality-free corporate commodity barns. If Young Adult implicitly criticizes its characters for liking these places, either because they’ve confused them for culture or because their indulgence in them is a character flaw in itself, Reitman is guilty of a stylistic crime of the same order, transporting us from the human versions of the balcony, the cage, the purse, the hotel room.

In moving from adolescents faced with adult problems (pregnancy, demons) to adults fleeing adulthood into their own adolescence, Cody’s screenplays suggest a rather grim model of human development.

High school is traumatic and at the same time permanent; we’re compelled to repeat its patterns again and again, only in increasingly desperate circumstances. It’s possible that the bleakness of Young Adult (which is garnering a significantly better critical response than Jennifer’s Body) is what’s lingering underneath all of the cheerful quipping of her previous two films.

For all of its refusal to conform to standard Hollywood narrative logic though, Young Adult proposes only the twin hells of your hometown with its ghosts and a vacant high-rise haunted by no one in particular. By film's end, when Mavis packs up her hotel room to return to Minneapolis with her sense of superiority reinvigorated, she finally offers an apology to her dog. It’s the only redemption the film offers and the only one it thinks is possible.