On Oct. 19, the Landmark Edina Cinema was the site of the first U.S. audience screening of "Young Adult," the new collaboration from the "Juno" team of director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. The much-anticipated new film (which is set in Minnesota, like its rpedecessor, and shot a few scenes here) shares some stylistic notes with their earlier effort. It features a pop-saturated soundtrack, a woman-child stuck between adolescence and adulthood, and a droll appreciation of daily life in suburbia. Yet it's a step in a new direction, both for the creative team and for movies, a mature and humane comedy centered on a misanthropic female antihero.
Think of it as "Juno's" wicked step sister.
Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a divorced writer (or as she prefers it, "author") of "Sweet Valley High"-style teen novels. Though she's in her thirties, Mavis never really graduated high school. Her Mineapolis high rise apartment has the depressing, slumlike impermanence of a crash pad. Her social life consists of one-night hookups and lunches spent belittling former acquaintances with a catty former classmate who fled Mercury, Minn. for the big city. At once haughty and insecure, Mavis is a textbook case of arrested development. To top it off, she's still obsessed with her former high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). Her fixation flares when Buddy's wife emails her an announcement welcoming their newborn child.
Mavis launches a mission to rescue Buddy from the bondage of family life, heedless of the fact that he's utterly content as a new dad. Equipped with an armory of makeup brushes, falsies and lethal little black dresses, she travels back to her hometown to reclaim her man. The comedy of awkwardness is honed to a knife edge as two-faced Mavis seductively wheedles Buddy at a plaid shirt sports bar. In her slinky cocktail attire she's as out of place as a black widow on a slice of apple pie.
Looking on mockingly is Matt (Patton Oswalt), a wisecracking former classmate of Mavis and Buddy's. Though he's physically disabled from a brutal high school bullying attack, he's better adjusted than Mavis. As she pursues her romantic delusion to its bleak conclusion, the two misfits strike up an unlikely friendship. In Matt, Mavis discovers the one confidant who might have saved her from terminal self-absorbtion when she was still young enough to change.
Edgy, subversive and hilariously embarrassing, "Young Adult" undercuts the conventions of female-centered comedies at each turn. It manages to keep us invested in the story despite focusing almost every scene on a thoroughly unpleasant protagonist. The supporting characters provide the homespun humanity Mavis lacks, especially Wilson as the bland new papa and Elizabeth Reaser as his funloving wife.
Theron delivers a brave, darkly amusing performance as a one-time alpha female realizing that life is passing her by. In her scenes with Oswalt, Theron drops her character's mask of mean girl poise, revealing the fear, loneliness and confusion beneath. "Young Adult's" skepticism that Mavis can fan these flickers of self-awareness into a flame of understanding is a guage of its sophistication. Cody and Reitman would rather close their film on a lifelike, unresolved note than force its characters into a contrived happy ending. Audiences may not embrace Mavis immediately -- she's too spiky for that. But there's little doubt that in time she'll join Marge Gunderson and Juno McGuff as one of Minnesota's enduring and iconic film characters.
"Young Adult" opens Dec. 9.