Jason Reitman and Alexander Payne seem to have switched careers. With Sideways (2004) and this year’s The Descendants, Payne has traded in the bitterness and the snark of his early features for more middlebrow fare; meanwhile, Reitman—whose earlier films Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009) offered up sentimental portraits of middle America as quaint and quirky—has decided to show a nastier side of himself with his new film Young Adult, written by Diablo Cody. Set largely in suburban Minnesota and scored by former Payne collaborator Rolfe Kent, it invites comparison to Payne’s dark satire of high school politics Election. Young Adult, too, is about the pettiness and trauma of high school and the persistence with which its memories haunt our adult lives. Its governing conceit is that all of the characters are essentially still playing out their high school roles into their late thirties. Developmentally arrested Mavis (Charlize Theron) relives the popularity of her teen years by writing young adult novels about prep school girls, while self-described “fat nerd” Jeff (Patton Oswalt) still bears the physical scars of a vicious attack by cruel jocks. The film plays like a twisted after-school special about dysfunctional adults instead of awkward teenagers—and unlike the heartaches and squabbles of teens, which we can usually chuckle over warmly or gaze on wistfully, the problems these grown-ups get themselves into make us feel squirmy and sad.
Unlike Reitman’s Juno, also written by Cody, Young Adult doesn’t placate us with a feel-good ending or leave us whistling twee indie songs. Nor does Young Adult present us with condescending representations of middle Americans as simple but good-hearted. Rather, it gives us a middle America populated by the “fat and stupid” (as one character describes them), its highways dotted with sports bars and “Ken-Taco-Huts” (KFC-Taco Bell-Pizza Hut hybrids). Some may find such representations more offensive than the quirkily homespun “just folks” approach of Juno or Up in the Air; Payne’s early work attracted similar complaints. Personally, I prefer a film that’s daring enough to make a target out of a subsection of the American populace—even at the risk of mean-spiritedness—to one that’s patronizing and maudlin. If Reitman wants to make comedies, it’s a lesson that he needs to learn.
As Mavis, the film’s despicable and strangely fascinating anti-heroine (described by another character as a “psycho prom queen bitch”), Charlize Theron gives her best performance since Monster (2003). Not even a lame last-ditch attempt on the part of the film to drum up sympathy for her (she’s not bad, she’s just misunderstood?) can undo the pleasures of watching her guzzle down Coke, glare at babies, or throw a tantrum at a christening. She and Oswalt make an unexpectedly funny comic team; their scenes together, especially late in the film, deftly tread the line between pathos and bathos. Thank goodness for this film: in a year of strained, pretentious, middling feel-good comedies (Beginners, Win Win, The Future), its simple, straightforward, casual nastiness comes as a welcome relief.