Return of the (Un)Sympathetic Heroine – Charlize Theron’s “Young Adult” (2011)

The phrase, “larger-than-life,” as applied to cinema may conjure images of masculine heroes who save the day with a gesture of of chivalry or forceful bravado,  but probably not a middle-aged heroine with baggage and an unrealistic desire to destabilize the heteropatriarchal familial structure. Enter Charlize Theron. Theron may be an actor who will be seen as larger-than-life, largely due to the attention she received from her acclaimed performance in Monster (2003). In her latest film, a dramedy called Young Adult (2011), Jason Reitman, director, Theron portrays a writer of teen fiction who lives in a big Midwestern city. She decides to leave the bright lights for a trip to her small town, a place she has not seen in years, in order to reconnect with an old boyfriend. The situation that unfolds is a study in vulnerability as Theron’s character, Mavis Gary, re-enters the life of old-flame, Buddy Slade, played by Patrick Wilson. It is when she also has a chance encounter with a former classmate, Matt Freehauf, played by Patton Oswalt, that her life begins to change.

Matt is suffering wounds from the past incurred while he was in high school. Mavis, immune to his story for much of their initial encounter, seems oblivious to the kind of suffering she is about to experience as she chases her fantasy man, who is also a new father, and who is blissfully married to an earnest special-needs teacher whose alternate ego is drummer for an all-girl grunge band. Unfortunately for Mavis, there is nothing she can throw down that can turn Buddy Slade’s head. Everyone in the town knows this – except Mavis. Her singularity of pursuit is the very means by which she later attains her self-reflexive awareness, but not until a series of blunders culminating in an unexpected cry for help, occur. Theron’s heroine is thoroughly unlikeable with her indeterminacy, identity confusion, and out-of-control ego. And yet, she is larger-than-life, largely due to her plight which is exacerbated by her work which seems to have hit a plateau, as has her life.

Mavis Gary needs help. The movie hinges on her character not only coming to this realization, but taking action to save herself from her demons. Her suffering is mirrored by Matt Freehauf’s physical and mental scars inured by teenage cruelty, which Mavis’ adult self is forced to confront so that she, and Matt, may no longer live in the past. Not even the fastidiousness of Mavis’ maquillage ritual, nor her shopping quest to Macy’s for the perfect Marc Jacobs fashion armour to wear for the baby’s naming ceremony can prevent her downward slide into alcohol, anger, and numbness. If fact, no resolution seems plausible cementing this film in the category of (un)romantic drama/comedy.

How the situation is resolved (if it is) involves one pivotal scene starring Elizabeth Reasor as Buddy Slade’s wife, Beth. Yet, this scene is also the one in which the audience is left wanting Reasor’s character to contribute more words. Later in the film, Theron’s character makes the bold move of asking for help from Matt’s sister, who appears to be dressed in a nurse’s uniform. It is left to the audience to determine whether her character has changed into a more self-reflexive soul, but the situation itself is reflective of the role context plays in constituting character. For an interesting take on the subject of situational determination, check out this article by Maria Popova that I found on my Twitter feed.

In conclusion, the script, by Diablo Cody, a graduate of the University of Iowa media studies program, presents the situation of a blond, bold and beautiful heroine, aware of her privilege, perhaps a little too aware, but who has lost recognition of herself as not immune to the loneliness of adulthood. This film is dark. It is messy, and at times, sparse in content, yet, the issue of raw vulnerability, persists enough to want to discuss the topic of the numbing of affect further.