Young Adult: When women refuse to grow up

19 Dec

Charlize Theron in "Young Adult."

Most of my friends are married with children. And I am happy for them.  I prefer not to be married with children.  At least so far.  And as I sat watching Young Adult, I couldn’t help but sickly identify with and enjoy the anti-heroine, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), who lived in her own narcissistic slightly delusional world and decided that to be happy, she would go back to her hometown and win back her old boyfriend who has just become a new father.  Diablo Cody who has written both Juno and Jennifer’s Body expertly creates a female character who is searching for happiness in all the wrong places, which is something most women tend to do, expertly.  Jason Reitman brings her words onto the screen seamlessly.  Perhaps that is because he directed Juno and produced Jennifer’s Body.  The previous collaboration illustrates what happens when writers and directors understand each other’s goals and intentions with films.

What is so appealing about this film is that Mavis Gary is unapologetically selfish, something women are never allowed to be.  She is saying and doing things most women fantasize about doing when they hit a point in their lives, usually between about 35-40 when they realize they haven’t ever been happy and they have no idea what happiness constitutes for them.  This is the story about a woman who has settled, even though she believed she had evaded settling.  The only difference between Mavis and the women from her hometown, besides her extraordinary drinking abilities, is that she settled in Minneapolis instead of her small town.  It takes  her experience in the small town to realize what she won’t settle for by the end of the film.

One of the most compelling aspects of Mavis’ character  is that she sees absolutely nothing wrong with destroying a happy marriage for her own pleasure.  Now yes, on the surface that sounds despicable and completely irredeemable, but there is something fascinating about watching a character do things most of us would find so wrong we could only fantasize about doing them.  And that is what Mavis is all about – living out her fantasy.  And that is a dangerous game to play.  Because she has done everything else she has wanted to do, had a successful career, that is now not so successful, had a marriage that was no so successful, and had her first romance that was not so successful.  Mavis wants to do something spectacular, and, honestly, to just keep herself busy and there is one way to keep yourself busy and put off your life and that is to create great drama in it.  The more drama you create, the less you have to actually live a purposeful life.  But sometimes, actually most times, to a character like Mavis, a purposeful life, one as a wife and a mother (which is how a purposeful life is illustrated in this film), seems like it would be no more fun than prison.

While there are many types of women in the world, there is one line that is silently drawn and that is the line between women who want children and women who don’t want children.  And it seems that there is always a question about what is wrong with these women, who go against nature and do not have children.  Who decide they prefer to live a life without caring for babies and that choice, first and foremost, it appears, makes these women seem selfish.  Is that my assessment of these women?  No.  Because loads of horrible selfish women become mothers.  Are these women more evolved than the women who still feel the need to breed?  Who knows.  But what I find compelling is that in this film, Mavis Gary is a neurotic, narcissist who has no problem attempting to destroy a happy home for her own selfishness.  What I find even more disturbing, however, is that her romantic rival invites her into her home, feeling that she is far superior as she is stable and evolved and really all Mavis needs is kindness and compassion – at least that’s her attitude on the surface.  She almost flaunts her condescending attitude toward Mavis who actually doesn’t really need or what kindness and compassion.  She just wants happiness but doesn’t know or understand what it is.


This film illustrates figures of so many women, all not quite satisfied no matter where they are in life.  Mavis, you could argue, represents a composite of all of them.  She is the embodiment of unchecked emotion run amok.  She also represents a complicated figure for women in the movie and in real life:  she serves as both a warning to women who do not choose the traditional route to follow in life and inspiration for those women who are too afraid to choose any path.  In one of the most embarrassing scenes in the film, we watch Mavis as she hears what her old boyfriend really thinks of her and what her former friends think of her.  It’s disheartening enough for her end up in bed, having sex with the physical cripple, Matt (Patton Oswalt), in the film, a mirror to herself as an emotional cripple.  It isn’t the sex that f’ixes Mavis.  She doesn’t get fixed.  She does realize that she is missing something and feels like there is something wrong with her and she needs to change, although I’m hard-pressed to ever see her becoming a happy housewife and mother, she would end up killing herself like poor Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road.  No Mavis was never cut out to live in a small town and be a mom, which is really what she needs to hear from Matt’s sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe), in one of the most inspiring speeches I’ve heard in a long time.

No.  Mavis is still in her Young Adult phase.  The phase she excels writing about.  The phase she is most comfortable in, when we are at are most selfish in life.  Sandra, too, was also stuck in the same Young Adult phase and it a shining example that you don’t have to be a selfish narcissist to be in a regressive spot.  You just have to be scared of life and taking chances on your own.  What this film illustrates is that all the characters are still in a Young Adult phase and nobody completely grows out of it.  Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), might enjoy being a new dad but he doesn’t admit he likes all Mavis’ attention and won’t even acknowledge the drunken kiss they share on his doorstep, in front of the babysitter.  Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), his wife, was just as regressive really, playing in her fourth-rate girl band at the local bar/restaurant and dedicating the same high school song that represented love for Mavis, to her husband, which illustrates Buddy doesn’t have much of an imagination and simply substituted one girl for another.  If Mavis hadn’t had her miscarriage early on, she too could be a teacher of emotionally handicapped children and a loser drum player in a band in nowhere town.  Beth is so desperate for fun, she’s willing to let her rival take her husband home in order to party and be away from her marriage.  In some ways, Beth is an even more disturbing figure to me than Mavis, as she has her husband and child and although she claims to love them and be happy, she is letting a malevolent force into her life and throwing caution to the wind.  Any sane woman would not be insisting her husband invite his ex-girlfriend who obviously still loves him to their home, to her mini-concert and to the baby naming.  And to have her husband do it as well is just a little more disturbing.

Each character has visual tells about how they hold on to their young adulthood.  Beth has her drums, Matt has his dolls he creates and Mavis, she surrounds her life with juvenile things.  She writes young adult novels.  Actually ghost writes them which is an even bigger sign she’s not quite ready to put her name on her work and acknowledge herself as a writer, she wears Hello Kitty t-shirts, drives drunk, and toward the end of the film, starts driving her old car from high school.  She hangs out where she can hear teenage girls talk and adds their conversations into her novels.  When she’s upset she eats her ice cream and pigs out at the local KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut (honestly this concept of putting two or more fast food restaurants together at the same place is both appealing and somehow a horrific hybrid to me but I secretly love getting Long John Silvers and drinking A&W root beer) and orders from all menus.  And just when you think she is far too juvenile, she ‘dresses up’ and looks like an adult.  Until we witness her actions.  Mavis’ life to this point is essentially an elaborate masquerade that is starting to come apart at the seams.

All these characters are stuck.  Some think they are happy and other’s know they are miserable.  Only Mavis has a short epiphany that she needs to do something to change, but instead, she listens to Sandra who tells her she must stay greedy and selfish and serve as an inspiration to people like Sandra.  It will probably take Mavis a few more years to figure out that yes, she does have to change, but that would entail learning how to love someone other than herself and as the film ends, she is satisfied with that.

One Response to “Young Adult: When women refuse to grow up”

  1. CMrok93 December 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    Theron gives a terrific performance. She elevates the movie by demonstrating her versatility. She almost makes you feel sympathetic towards this blonde, beautiful and sharp-witted anti-heroine. Oswalt deserves consideration for supporting actor as well. Great review. Check out whenever you get the chance.

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