A friend of mine told me recently that her brother reconnected with his high school girlfriend on Facebook. Both divorced, they decided to see if that old spark was still there. It was and they are now maintaining a long distance relationship until all their children are off to college and they can settle in the same city and get married.
My guess is that they are not alone. We all have past relationships that somehow went awry. Perhaps the timing wasn’t right, one (or both) not ready to make a commitment. It’s irresistible to look back and think, what if? The Internet has made it easier to reach out and touch someone from the past, to rekindle a relationship that hasn’t gone totally cold.
In Young Adult, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) receives a birth announcement from an old flame, Buddy Slade, played by Patrick Wilson. (That’s the other beauty of the Internet. Birth announcements that, in the past, may have been sent out to a select few, now are emailed to everyone on a list or in a database. In this case, Mavis’s high school class in Mercury, Minnesota). Mavis is at a low point in her life. She lives in what those in her hometown refer to as the Mini Apple, short for Minneapolis, and has what seems like a successful career as an author of young adult books. The truth is, she’s just a ghost writer whose name never appears on the volumes in the Gossip Girl-like series. When she visits a bookstore in Mercury, she finds her books on the sale table and a clerk won’t let her autograph any, anticipating returns to the publisher. Toiling away on the next book, she soon discovers it will be her last. The series has been cancelled.
Mavis has one failed marriage and her relationships consist of one night stands after she’s had too much to drink. (Something that happens all too often). The arrival of the birth announcement awakens something inside of her. She can’t believe that her old boyfriend, Buddy, hasn’t spent his days pining over her and decides to return to Mercury to win him back. Never mind that he is married with a new baby. “I’ve got baggage, too,” she tells a former classmate, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), whom she meets in a bar.
Because Mavis is played by Theron, it’s not a stretch to imagine that she was popular in high school. Popular and mean. Matt’s locker was next to Mavis’s for four years, yet she preferred to check herself out in the heart-shaped mirror in her locker, rather than acknowledge a less popular classmate. Thought to be gay, Matt was attacked in high school by a group of jocks armed with crow bars. He still bears the scars and walks with a cane. Mavis exhibits little sympathy for his pain telling him to leave what happened in the past.
The trouble is, Mavis can’t leave the past alone. Buddy is over the moon about his newborn daughter, but all Mavis can see are his bloodshot eyes. Although she only tells Matt about her plan to win Buddy back, she is so blatant in her flirting, that she leaves no one in the dark about her aspirations. She interprets Buddy’s attention and an invitation to his baby’s naming ceremony as evidence that he returns her feelings.
Mavis is that high school friend who hasn’t grown up. The fact that she writes young adult books is an irony pointed out by Matt. She’s still the self-centered adolescent she was in high school, ignoring most people around her (she arrives in Mercury and never calls her parents) and using those she does acknowledge for her own purposes (Matt). Even her dog, Dulce, is an after thought. Although she brings Dulce to Mercury, she never takes him out of the hotel room during her extended stay, leaving him to urinate on pads she’s placed around the room.
Buddy’s wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reasor) is Mavis’s polar opposite. When Beth isn’t lavishing care on her husband and baby, she’s teaching developmentally challenged kids and playing in a rock band with other moms. She can’t challenge Mavis in the looks department, but knows she doesn’t have to. She’s so sure of her relationship with Buddy that she insists Mavis drive him home when he’s had too much to drink. It’s Beth, not Buddy, who wants to include Mavis in the naming ceremony, an occasion that goes horribly wrong and where we learn what really happened to Mavis in high school.
While Theron is beautiful, as Mavis that beauty seems coarse and unappealing. We watch as she layers on the makeup, trying to cover up blemishes that only she can see. She suffers from trichotillomania, pulling out her hair, and wears a hairpiece to disguise her bald spots. And while she’s focused on winning Buddy back, she doesn’t think beyond that. What happens if she succeeds? She is not accepted by those she snubbed in high school and being a home wrecker is not likely to win her any new friends. There’s a reason Buddy never left Mercury—he loves his hometown. So a move to the Mini Apple would never happen. Mavis seems to be working out the situation as she writes her last young adult book, including in the plot what is happening in her real life.
Compared to the other holiday offerings, Young Adult is not a flashy film, but one that will be discussed with family and friends for many days after. The acting is superb. Theron disappears into her character, making us see beyond her beauty at the insecurity and pain beneath Mavis’s tough exterior. Wilson is unrecognizable as the confident, arrogant neurosurgeon he plays on the CBS hit, The GIfted Man. With a scruffy beard, dressed in jeans and a down vest, he comes across as a small town guy who will always put his wife and children first. Oswalt displays true acting chops as the damaged yet insightful Matt. While he and Mavis suffered different injuries in high school, he truly understands her suffering.
And, it must be said, that even a small role can leave a big impression. Louisa Kraus, the front desk girl, seems to have been recruited from a real Holiday Inn-like hotel in a backwater town. We can’t wait to see what she can do with a more substantial role.
We never root for Mavis; we know she will fail and we feel sorry for her. Perhaps the cynical among us will readily identify a Mavis we knew in high school, the beautiful girl who was popular, seemed to have all the fun and made our lives miserable. Truth be told, like Mavis, even the popular kids were miserable in high school. The good thing? High school eventually ends and we can all get on with our lives. Only the brave attempt to go back and rewrite history. The smart ones hit the delete key and stay off Facebook.