Mavis Gary has hit rock bottom. An alcoholic divorcee, Mavis is writing the final novel in a once-popular young adult fiction series. Upon receiving an email update from her former boyfriend, Buddy, she spontaneously decides to return to her roots of small-town Minnesota. Her mission: win Buddy back as the true love of her life. Of course, the fact he is happily married and with a newborn baby might be a formidable obstacle. Mavis is undeterred; true love awaits. Mavis returns to her stomping grounds and reconnects with a variety of former high school associates, including Matt, an overweight nerd who lives in his sister’s basement and has a homemade distillery in the garage. Matt walks with a crutch due to a tragic bullying incident in high school–a group of jocks lured him into the woods and brutally beat him with a crowbar, permanently disabling Matt. He walks with a limp through life.
Young Adult is a darkly satirical view on people with static maturity. (The film’s tagline:everyone grows old. Not everyone grows up.) Mavis is both the protagonist and antagonist of this tale. She is her own destruction as she continues to pursue Buddy, despite all evidence that he is not interested in her advances. It’s not a true mid-life crisis, but a prolonging of the past that stretches continually into the present. This is the ultimate in extended adolescence. Mavis does have some adult characteristics–she has been married, she maintains a job, and is financially independent of her parents. Her adolescence has less to do with practicalities and more with identity; her very self is trapped in the days of high school. Mavis has an incredible lack of self-awareness and empathy, a devastating combination that isolates her in an illusion of reality.
It’s not just Mavis. Most of the characters in Young Adult are holding on to the past somehow, living out fantasy roles and displaying identities much like they did at 17-years-old. Matt remains the snarky nerd who lurks in the margins of society; his sister, Sandra, is the insecure nobody who just wants to be noticed; Mavis’s own parents are seemingly oblivious to all her shortcomings and unwilling to acknowledge her downward spiral through life. Only Buddy and his wife, Beth, seem to have broken free from the trappings of prolonged adolescence. Herein lies the difficult-yet-brilliant aspect to Mavis’s story: she doesn’t change. There are no climactic moments of repentance or redemption. Her story has no arc, only a stagnant flatline with a few blips here and there revealing signs of life. Watching the film, it felt deeply dissatisfying, and even painful, to see Mavis continue to embrace her illusions.
(Spoiler Alert) After Mavis has an abrupt outburst at Buddy and Beth’s baby-dedication party, she turns to Matt for a sense of comfort, eventually exposing herself to him in a moment of supposed vulnerability. Matt is also lonely and isolated, and Mavis is the pretty girl alone in his bedroom. It’s a nerd fantasy come true, and he gives into her advances. In the morning, she leaves without ever saying goodbye, paralleling an earlier scene where she coldly left a stranger in her bedroom to set out for her hometown. Before she can leave unnoticed, she shares a cup of coffee with Sandra. In moment of honesty, Mavis finally admits that she believes she needs to change, that her life is empty and fruitless. At the brink of repentance, Sandra pulls Mavis back into the illusion by telling her to “f**k Mercury.” Mavis doesn’t need to change; she’s the most successful and beautiful person Sandra has ever known. The conversation is devastating and disheartening, as both women wholeheartedly believe their shallow wisdom. Both are still living out roles they kept in high school. Both identities are wrapped up in having a wrong self-perception and choosing to believe that lie. Both Sandra and Mavis look to Mavis as the ideal. Mavis leaves feeling more sure of herself, despite having manipulated and exploited both Matt and Sandra to achieve these ends. (End Spoiler)
Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody have created the most devastating filmic portrayal of extended adolescence. Instead of the comedic antics of films like The Hangoveror Funny People, Young Adult goes down a dark path and never relents. It allows us to empathize with a self-destructive character, watching her life flatline and hoping for a renewed breath of life to fill her lungs. What could have changed Mavis’s trajectory in life? Perhaps a loving adult coming alongside her when she was young, patiently guiding her and willing to call her out on her ruinous habits. Now as an adult–if one could call her that–Mavis needs a community of grace. There is a brief glimpse of this community in Beth and Buddy, who invite her into their lives despite recognizing her agenda. They choose to offer her empathy and friendship while not ignoring the dark truth of her destructive tendencies.
Young Adult is certainly not a feel-good film. When the credits rolled, I did not like Mavis. She was rude and shallow and stubborn and frustrating. Yet more than these characteristics, she was lost. Jesus loved the lost, choosing to leave the ninety-nine in order to find the one. Without guidance and direction and grace from a good Shepherd and a compassionate community, I am Mavis.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1625346/