A few years ago Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody were suddenly experiencing the Hollywood equivalent of being the most popular kids in school. Their first collaboration Juno went instantly from indie oddball to Oscar frontrunner to box office phenom, and as quickly as people fell in love with the movie's quirky dialogue and stylistic flourishes, they turned on it, making Juno one of those hits that's remembered even more for its backlash. That kind of experience can make filmmakers caustic or resentful, and maybe Reitman and Cody were for a while, but they've now turned it into Young Adult, a harsh but insightful and often very funny take on what happens when you cling to that popularity well after its value has faded.
In the lead role of Mavis Gary, a ghost writer of serialized young adult novels with vivid memories of her high school greatness, Charlize Theron is charged with walking a near-impossible tightrope. Mavis is mean, bitter, self-absorbed and shallow, mistreating the dog she carries around in her purse, poisoning herself with a diet of Diet Coke and hard liquor, constantly propping herself with the praise of those around her. But she's also undeniably magnetic, and Theron's stripped-down, ugly performance guarantees you can't take your eye off Mavis, blazing through the movie like a prom queen who knows everyone in the hallway is watching her sashay to biology class.
Now edging toward her late 30s, Mavis's life in Minneapolis seems good on paper but curdles in close-up, her high-rise apartment sterile and messy, her writing job for a series that's clearly past its prime. She'll never admit this of course, to herself or the audience, not even when she suddenly decides on a road trip to her nearby hometown of Mercury, ostensibly to rescue her high school flame Buddy (Patrick Wilson) from a life of small-town domestic bliss. Romantic comedy heroines make this journey all the time, triumphantly galloping back to their small town to prove how much they've moved on, but in Cody's unforgiving script we see straight through Mavis's delusion. Buddy is indeed happily married with a new baby, the yokels at the local watering hole don't look twice at Mavis when she's all done up, and the only person who will indulge her at all is Matt (Patton Oswalt), a high school outcast who clings to his resentment as much as Mavis does her bygone glory days.
Mavis and Matt are capable of bringing out the worst and best in each other, calling each other on their shit while also propping up each others twisted ideas of themselves; in another film they could have fallen in unlikely love, but Young Adult skews far darker and more real. Mavis has returned to Mercury not to be saved but to validate herself, and while she meets nothing but resistance and humiliation and defeat, Cody and Reitman know that's not enough to inspire change in someone like Mavis, who has been told for 20 years that being tall, blond and pretty makes her powerful.
Shooting digitally with handheld camera and frequently grimy lighting, Reitman eschews his familiar visual tricks to plunge the audience directly into Mavis's grim world; similarly, Cody's script is absent the slangy jangle she was unfairly derided for in Juno, and she focuses her sharp instincts on making Mavis outrageous but utterly real. She isn't just one of the few female antiheroes on par with the likes of Daniel Plainview or Royal Tenenbaum; Mavis is awful in her specific femininity, in her abuse of a pretty girl's power and reinforcement of confining gender roles to get what she wants. Following Mavis for 90 minutes in Young Adult is trying and often cringingly awkward, but Theron, Cody and Reitman earn every difficult moment, and pepper it with humor and terrific performances that keep the audience from feeling actively tortured. Everyone knew a Mavis in high school, but her story has never been told so well.