I’m a big fan of “life after high school films,” probably because I’m in the midst of that life myself. Films of this genre have changed depending on the decade, but currently they focus on the uncertainty; the questioning involved with “where am I supposed to be in my life right now” and “am I truly happy?” A lot of this is bound up in the film and televisions shows that are out there now. According to movies I should have my own house, have finally figured out fashion, and have a slew of men at my beck and call (of course I lack all of these attributes).
This brings us to Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s latest film Young Adult, a film that takes a stark and brutal look at life after high school. I found this movie painfully touching my nerve on my life at this very moment. Young Adult tells a depressing tale about growing up, finding that everyone sees fulfillment in different ways, and ultimately how the media glamorizes the slacker lifestyle.
Young Adult tells the tale of young adult fiction writer Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron). Mavis is 37, depressed, and an alcoholic whose routine includes bar-hopping and sex with random men. When she gets a birth announcement from her high-school flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), she goes back to her small home-town in Missouri to steal him away. Alongside that mission, Mavis meets another classmate of hers named Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) who tries to prove to Mavis that her life isn’t so bad.
There’s been much debate about Mavis as a character, the long and short of it being she’s a heinous bitch! That’s all well and good yet there’s a reason for it this behavior that Mavis masks underneath layers of surliness and alcoholism; she’s depressed. You see a brief glimpse of Mavis’ wedding photo, a photo she wants her mother to take down because she’s divorced, and in it you see the woman that Mavis used to be. In the photo she’s happy and free an,d for an instance, she thought life was set. Mavis is a woman who has believed that because she’s beautiful, the world should come easier to her. The fact that she writes a popular young adult book series titled Waverly Prep, and the final book she’s writing is pretty much her own life, drives home the notion that the pretty people get what they want.
I hate to admit that this is still obvious in our society today, it’s been obvious since the dawn of the media, it just seems more constant now. The young adult novels Mavis sees in a bookstore all look like bad 80s posters with girls with long hair and guys with muscles, they’re snapshots of the perfect life. If you look at teen books in your own Barnes and Nobles it shows something similar: girls in gorgeous gowns and guys who pine over you. That’s essentially what Mavis wishes her life was: a teen novel with her the beautiful cheerleader and Buddy the brooding soul who’s been trapped in an unhappy marriage waiting for her. Matt asks if her books include vampires, which I found to be a slight dig at the Twilight franchise, but it’s about the notion of what teen books have become. They have no depth, much like Mavis, provide escapism, and have a romance that for all intents and purposes shouldn’t work out (much like Mavis and Buddy).
As much as I didn’t want to connect and identify with Mavis, I couldn’t help but connect to her in some way. She has no maternal affection as she tells her family about Buddy’s baby, “Have you seen it, up close?” I don’t like kids and watching Mavis grimace as everyone cooed over the baby, I’ve been there. Mavis seeing the happy lives of Buddy and Beth Slade, and how that could have been her, I’ve been there too! As a young woman struggling in college I do occasionally see what some of my fellow graduates are doing. The few that are leading big lives, going to fancy schools, I envy because if I had more money I’d be doing it too (and let’s not deny I’m way smarter than some of them). Every one of us is a Mavis Gary and that’s why the movie is so highly debated, because no one wants to admit they’re like her. There are also elements of myself and the American society in characters like Matt and his sister Sandra. We all have something that we say is stopping us from achieving our goals whether physical or in our heads. By that same token we all see someone’s life and say “it must be so easy for them.”
A very interesting dialogue exchange between Mavis and Matt’s sister Sandra (Collette Wolfe) hit’s the point home. The two are having their first and only conversation in the entire film. Sandra is in awe of Mavis, telling her that when she’s taking a break from her boring job she thinks of Mavis “in your awesome apartment” and leading a big life in the city. Sandra sees Mavis as the one who escaped the grind of Mercury, Missouri therefore her life must be perfect. Sandra goes on to say that those in Mercury aren’t truly happy, they’re just waiting to die and they just think they’re fulfilled. Sandra yearns to get out of Mercury but for some reason can’t. She idolizes Mavis just as Mavis idolizes Beth Slade. It’s in this scene that Mavis realizes she can hate her past, stunt her future, and continue a routine of self-loathing, or just try to find a way to endure her life because someone else finds it fulfilling. The idea of peaking in high school is nothing new in film, but Mavis sees it as a time when she “was at my best,” because she was pretty, popular, and had the guy, yet at the end she realizes it wasn’t her best as her parents were absent, she was kind of a slut, and she has self-mutilating problems that haven’t gone away.
Where Reitman drives the point home is in showing Mavis falling asleep to E! reality shows. Throughout the movie you see segments on the television showing Kendra Wilkinson’s show and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Both Sandra and Mavis suffering from seeing this notion of having to lead a glamorous life. Mavis seeks stability and love because she feels that’s what’s missing in her life. Sandra sees living a life of fame in the big city something to be proud of because of this fleeting nature of celebrity. These shows depict that a woman can have it all, if they’re famous and put it all out on camera. When Mavis has her breakdown in front of a group of people at a party, she’s airing all her personal business for an audience a la the reality shows. The fact that these shows glamorize people for doing absolutely nothing (or being naked in some type of media), also can be attributed to the women’s lack of knowledge on growing up. Mavis is a ghostwriter for Waverly Prep, her name is hidden in the book jacket and no one knows she’s written them. She’s famous, purely for being “an author” and for Sandra she’s famous for doing nothing other than leaving Mercury. These characters have seen that no one is important unless they’re pretty and famous with an audience of adoring fans, and you should be able to do it with little effort. Mavis has that life according to Sandra, but she isn’t happy with it. I don’t know if Reitman and Cody meant to intentionally slam the new nature of celebrity (oh who am I kidding of course they meant to). Either way it shows that the new generation has seen success and happiness coming from fame and public adoration but not truly seeing the true nature behind the glitz and glamour.
Young Adult truly showcases the new world of growing up and success, it comes for some but not for all. Growing up is no longer a defined rite of passage that comes from completing some type of education, it comes from realizing that you can’t always get what the movies tell you you should have. It comes from realizing you can either be miserable and pine for a time that’s past you by, or you can learn to make the most of the present. Mavis literally sleeps through her life, and at the end she realizes that she needs to wake up even then she’s not happy. I’m not totally a Mavis, but I see what she means. Young Adult doesn’t give answers or life lessons; it presents life as it is, as it’s become which might make it all the more depressing. Either way I left the theater saying “I’ve proved I’m not crazy.”
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.