Often in our youth we mock what one might call adult-oriented ideals. You know, those stuffy, time-honored notions like mortgage payments and manicured lawns and families and careers that become necessary to support those families. Inevitably, however, a dividing line is reached, a time when you realize those notions are very much real and very much a part of real life. Shut up and deal with it. 37-year-old Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron, who is all-in and gung-ho) probably reached that dividing line quite awhile ago and has either chosen to deny it, ignore it or spit on it.
She lives in a messy Minneapolis apartment with a little dog whose existence she barely acknowledges and makes money as the credited ghost-writer of a series of young adult novels. But the books aren’t selling like they used to. They are coming to an end. And Mavis has writer’s block trying to complete the last one. This becomes intertwined with the fact her former high school flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) has just had a baby with his wife Beth (Elisabeth Reaser).
So one morning after an empty one-night stand, Mavis slips out of her non-lover’s embrace, packs her bags and hits the road for her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, cluing us into the character’s demeanor in a way no word(s) ever could – that is, she’s someone so afraid of confronting reality she just leaves this nameless guy alone in her own apartment apparently in the hopes he’ll not only not steal something but lock up after himself. All righty then.
Her plan in a nutshell is to somehow seduce Buddy back into her arms. At least this is what she tells Matt (Patton Oswalt), another ex-high school classmate whose locker was right next to Mavis’s, not that she remembers him. Well, she doesn’t remember him as Matt. She remembers as “the hate crime victim.” A few guys who thought Matt was gay (he isn’t) beat him within an inch of his life and left him for dead and with the need to walk with a crutch the rest of his life. He lives with his sister (Collette Wolf) and in a room that appears unchanged since high school, stuffed full of action figures and comic books.
This is because the film comes from the distinct pen of screenwriter Diablo Cody, working in conjunction with director Jason Reitman, much as they did on 2007′s Juno, a film which in specific ways Young Adult references – many of the character archetypes are similar – but also from which Ms. Cody breaks free to explore both a harsher side of human life and, believe it or not, the conventions of these sorts of films. (Though her metaphorical attempt to illuminate Mavis’s own plight with her youth novel are very much unsuccessful. Too, too broad.)
To put it bluntly, Mavis Gary is not simply unlikeable, she’s despicable. A ghastly train wreck that frequently leaves Matt, whose company she constantly seeks despite not appearing to like him all that much, outright bewildered. Remember the scene in Sideways at the commercial winery Miles hates right after he learns another publisher has passed on his book and he grabs the giant barrel of wine and tips it up and spills it all over himself? Remember how hard it was to watch? Charlize Theron’s hell-bent performance is like watching that scene for 90 minutes. She is self-pitying and unapologetic. She gussies up, worms her way right into Buddy’s existence, openly flirts with him, occasionally right in front of his wife. Reitman’s film never really even attempts to make her sympathetic. Even an apparent friend in an early scene back in the “Minny Apple” seems not simply confused but appalled by Mavis’s behavior.
So, of course, now that Mavis has returned to Mercury we are set to enter, shall we say, Sweet Home Alabama syndrome. These kindly simpletons, acting out of the goodness of their own heart, will be the mirror to which she can hold up her myriad of flaws and see the thankful light! She will go home and she will change! Not so fast. Matt may call her out but he’s not exactly providing self-help (he enables her with his homemade booze). Her parents ignore her when she claims to be an “alcoholic”, probably because they don’t take her seriously. And consider the way Wilson plays the all-important flame – he seems a good father, definitely, but also a little dense, a little unaware of Mavis’s most-forthright intentions. “How could he not know?!” you might ask. I think that’s the point. I think Cody and Reitman’s Mercury, Minnesota is skewering every hometown to which every movie character has ever returned.
And this brings us to the single most perplexing scene in a film in 2011 (so far). Details will not be revealed, but it is near the end, it involves Matt’s sister, and it is unmistakable. Fundamentally, it changes the entire outlook of the film. Is Mavis a bigger Monster than Aileen Wuornos? Or is Sweet Home Alabama syndrome a big bunch of you-know-what?
The Lady or the Tiger?