As if the title, "Young Adult," weren’t indication enough that our anti-heroine is severely stuck in her adolescent ways, the brilliantly repetitive opening credits sequence – in which Mavis listens to the same Teenage Fanclub track ad nauseum, and on cassette no less – makes it perfectly clear that the recently divorced Mavis isn’t quite over her high-school heyday. As such, she’s an ideal candidate to ghost-write a series of junky teen books (although she’s quick to correct anyone who calls her a writer; she’s an “author,” and nobody calls Minneapolis “the Mini Apple” either).
A senior-year assault left Matt with enough literal scars to match Mavis’ psychological damage, but while he’s about as stuck in the past as she is – with his rock band shirts and action figures – he at least has the good sense to realize it. Oswalt’s performance returns him to "Big Fan" territory (although Mavis probably more closely resembles his football fanatic in that film), and it’s a turn of surprisingly acute frustration and resignation from the stand-up comedian that doesn’t succumb easily to a conventional romantic mold. These two are spirits more kindred than either would like to admit, trapped in a small town where fellow alumni dare to be content with their humble lives.
Theron may have de-glammed herself in 2003’s "Monster," but she walks a far more challenging line here in terms of earning an audience’s sympathy. Mavis knows how to get dolled up for a one-night stand, and she pulls out all the stops for her would-be true love. No amount of make-up can disguise the fact that she’s a self-sabotaging alcoholic with an unfailing superiority complex, a newfound habit of stalking her ex and no long-term job prospects once this series of books/paychecks run out, and Theron plays her every flaw to pitiful perfection. When Mavis finally invites Buddy to run away with her, she implores, “We can beat this thing! Together!” – referring to nothing less than his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) and their infant daughter. Like much of the film, it’s an exceedingly uncomfortable moment that has been carefully positioned between being darkly funny and deeply sad, and those scenes would become unbearably cruel or miserable if it weren’t for such a precise performance.
The film wraps it up a bit hastily after that, falling one dramatic beat short in its rush to have Mavis make her way back into the “real world,” but to be any more specific as to how could be rightfully seen as a disservice. For ninety minutes, "Young Adult" doesn’t flinch from deep-seated scars and long-lasting regret, and it’s only funnier for exploiting and exploring the grand delusions of its utterly pathological, pretty-on-the-outside protagonist. [A-]
"Young Adult" opens on December 9 in limited release and then begins expansion on December 16.