Young Adult (2011): Director Reitman and Writer Diablo Cody’s Second Teaming, Starring Charlize Theron

“Young Adult,” the second teaming of Oscar-winning scribe Diablo Cody and Oscar-nominated director Jason Reitman, who gave us “Juno,” is an extremely well acted serio comedy about the maturation of a small-town/big city girl, terrifically embodied by Charlize Theorn in an Oscar-caliber performance.

In what’s her most challenging role since North Country,” in 2005, for which she was Oscar nominated, Theron renders an impressively dominant, emotionally touching performance that should garner her her third Best Actress nomination (Theron had won the Best Actress Oscar for the 2003 melodrama “Monster”).

This time around, there is no extra-weight, no heavy make-up, no accent, no mannerism in the work of Theron, all of which shaped and defined her turn in “Monster,” a fictionalized version of the life of serial killer Aileen Wournos.

That said, overall, “Young Adult” represents a step down for the gifted director Jason Reitman, whose best picture to date is the Oscar-nominated “Up in the Air,” starring George Clooney.”

As a tale, “Young Adult” is too narrowly conceived—it’s a movie that revolves around a single idea, or premise.  The movie is essentially a two-handler, an intimate melodrama with comedic and satirical tone, which could have used more ideas and a larger number of characters.

Though enjoyable, “Young Adult” is Reitman’s most conventional and predictable film to date, one in which everything is spelled out for the audience; there’s no rich subtext, as the one that prevailed in “Juno” and especially in “Up in the Air.”

Writer Cody claims that she was inspired by a real news story in Minneapolis, but “Young Adult” could have taken place anywhere, which is both a plus and a minus for the film’s overall impact.

Theron, who’s 36, plays a character of her age, Mavis Gary, a writer of teen literature who returns to her small hometown to reclaim her now happily-married high school sweetheart.  For years, she has convinced—or rather deluded—herself that all she needs to do is show up on the porch of Buddy Slade (handsome and appealing but deliberately bland Patrick Wilson), and, pronto, they will rekindle their flame, and Buddy would leave his loyal wife and two babies for her.

But real life is a bit more complicated than that, and the experience proves to be full of surprises and disappointment, some anticipated while others not.

Indeed, when coming home proves more difficult than she thought, Mavis forms an unusual bond with a former classmate, Matt Freehauf  (Patton Oswalt), who hasn’t quite gotten over high school, either, albeit for a very different reason.

The film contains a very few secondary characters, Beth Slade, Buddy’s wife (Elizabeth Reeser), and Mavis mother, Hedda Gary (Jill Eikenberry), each of whom has perhaps two scenes.

Emotionally immature, Mavis is not entirely lacking in awareness.  She realizes, two decades later, that the happiest she’s ever been in her life was during high school.  Deeply stunted, Mavis thinks that the only way she can reclaim that happiness is to literally go back and find the man who made her happy back then. Never mind that she’s told by everyone that Buddy is the model husband and father of two.

On the big screen, the story doesn’t feel fully fleshed out. It belongs to a subgenre of films about arrested development, stories in which the protagonists are often male in their 20s.  Thus, there’s a sad feeling observing thirtysomething characters, male and female, which are emotionally stunted because they had reached their peak in high school and now wonder how they can recreate those circumstances and be again the place’s “king” or “queen.”  

And so, the main reason to see “Young Adult,” essentially a film that’s a character study, is Charlize Theron, a fearless actress, who doesn’t flinch from playing unsympathetic characters, and immerses herself completely, body (yes, there is a nude scene) and soul, in playing the part.   In this film, unlike “Monster,” Theron seems to have created the complex and complicated persona of Mavis from the inside out, starting with the emotional core of her character.

Mavis is not an entirely likeable personality, and you’ll find yourself both laughing at her and laughing with her, as you observe her desperation to win back her old flame.  Which may be the reason why characters such as Mavis are underrepresented in mainstream cinema (and TV).  

Mavis is a woman who doesn’t have the best plan, but it’s intriguing to watch her carry it out—to the bitter end, with all the peaks and the valleys of her often embarrassing journey, which contains serious and shocking, funny and tragic moments. 

Indeed, despite the limitations of the narrative, Diablo Cody continues to show an idiosyncratic voice, manifest in scenes in which the rather serio text is undercut by an off-center line or a four-letter word, or a whimsical quirk.