Peter and I went to some trouble to see “Young Adult” this weekend (it was playing at only one local theatre), and we’re both glad we did. If you’re tired of trite, predictable movies, then this one’s for you.
Rotten Tomatoes summarizes neatly: “Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a writer of teen literature who returns to her small hometown to relive her glory days and attempt to reclaim her happily married high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson). When returning home proves more difficult than she thought, Mavis forms an unusual bond with a former classmate (Patton Oswalt) who hasn’t quite gotten over high school, either.”
It is easy to describe this film as a character study, portrait of a train wreck. Mavis is shallow, immature, and selfish, a woman struggling with alcoholism and mental illness (Mavis refers to her depression multiple times, and the film shows her compulsive hair pulling, an impulse control disorder called trichotillomania). As viewers, we watch Mavis’ graceless and undignified emotional flailing, and in doing so, we get to feel better about ourselves and our own lives. The priorities that Mavis seems to eschew–family, loyalty, respect for others–are values most of us hold dear. Mavis is the Other, different from us. When we define ourselves against her self-absorption, we feel safer, our values affirmed.
But the film is more interestingly seen as an unconventional meditation on happiness. The questions Mavis asks during the course of the film are ultimately questions we all ask ourselves at times: Am I happy? When was I happy? How can I find happiness again? That Mavis associates happiness with a time (high school) and a person (her ex-boyfriend) is not at all unusual. That Mavis wonders what her life might be like if things had gone differently in her past is not shallow or immature or selfish. It’s natural.
The most painful and honest aspect of the film, in my opinion, is the response (or non-response) of people orbiting Mavis’ machinations. When she blurts out to people who might be presumed to care that she thinks she’s an alcoholic, the response is dismissive, as if she’d said nothing. When she lays bare her grief and need and isolation to people who have stated a desire to help, the response is stunned silence. As is so often the case in our disconnected and isolative culture, when we witness someone clearly in need of help and connection, the vast majority of us have absolutely no idea how to even reach out. More painful than Mavis’ personal struggle is the inability of those around her to offer any comfort or assistance.
The exception to this is Mavis’ former classmate, Matt (Patton Oswalt), and the story of their unlikely friendship forms the heart of this uncomfortable film. More like Mavis than he would like to admit, Matt also wonders if he is happy, if he was ever happy, what would it take to become happy. Like Mavis, he doesn’t have good answers. But he alone of everyone in this film witnesses Mavis in her full authenticity and finds her a better person now than she ever was before.
This isn’t a feel-good film that closes with an ending designed to make us feel all better. More realistic than most of us want from this kind of film, the story leaves us wondering if anything has really changed for Mavis. And that’s exactly what I like about it. Change comes slowly for most of us. One aha! moment seems revelatory, but is then forgotten, until the next aha! moment reminds us of what we learned, and pushes us farther along. Healing and transformation doesn’t happen overnight, and alcoholism and mental illness aren’t overcome by making a friend. But there is something about this film that gives me hope for Mavis, and there is something about that that gives me hope for the world.