Why on Earth I Liked Young Adult

Perhaps a month ago, I watched Young Adult. It’s a 2011 comedy starring Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, a self-destructive YA fiction ghostwriter (think Sweet Valley High) who at thirty-seven decides, pretty much out of the blue, to go home to small-town Minnesota to steal her high-school sweetheart away from his wife and newborn baby.

Wonked, right? But not really.

If this were a romantic comedy—which for about a second it tricks you into thinking it is—yes, it would be wonked. But it’s not a rom-com. It’s a black comedy featuring faux-romance storylines, but delivering zero actual romance. And since it claims no conventions and hence doesn’t purport to break any, it’s not wonky. It’s just…different.

This post is going to include spoilers, because it’s fairly impossible to couch Young Adult in meaningful storytelling terms without acknowledging whether or not Mavis gets redeemed. So if you don’t want to know, stop reading. Go watch it, then tell me what you think.

When I first saw this movie, I kind of loved it. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered, “Why on earth did I enjoy that?” It features what would seem at first glance to be a highly unlikable heroine (great, love those) but that’s not what Mavis Gary is, really. As the title of an excellent Slate piece on the film quite accurately points out, “In Young Adult, Charlize Theron isn’t ‘unlikable,’ she’s mentally ill.”

Ding ding ding! This is the crafty thing about the movie. You see the poster, read its zippy tagline ["Everyone gets old. Not everyone grows up."], you see the star’s name, you know it’s a comedy…so your brain immediately begins making assumptions.

It’s clear in the first fifteen minutes of the movie that Mavis is a bit of a wreck. She’s disorganized, she’s unfocused, she’s half-assing her way through her day-to-day life and through her roles as a writer (nay, “an author,” she’d be quick to correct you), a pet-owner, and a sexual being. As a human being. Your bog-standard unlikable heroine, right?

But as the movie goes on, her character quickly unfolds, and what’s revealed instead is a chemically addicted (alcohol; Diet Coke), compulsive (hair-pulling; occasional binge-eating), obsessive (consumptive delusional infatuation; attachments to nostalgic objects and songs) woman with a teenager’s impulsivity and emotional intelligence, and nearly zero self-awareness, remorse, or empathy, and with what’s implied at one point to be clinical depression.

As in Shame—another 2011 film featuring an unlikable, self-destructive, unredeemed, compulsive protagonist—Mavis has a carefully (and yet sometimes sloppily) constructed outward image. But it’s not some perfect illusion, with only the viewer in on the wreck it’s hiding—just about everyone sees through Mavis’s act. Especially Matt, an old high school classmate Mavis stumbles into an opportunistic friendship with. After she makes Matt go with her to the home of her object-of-obsession late at night—where she wonders aloud, drunkenly, forlornly, if her old flame is perhaps upstairs, sadly masturbating to temporarily escape what Mavis assumes is his loveless marriage—Matt announces, “You’re fucking mentally ill.” And she is. Matt knows it. But Mavis sure doesn’t.

So our protagonist is a hot mess. In her mind, she’s on a hero’s journey. A quest to reclaim what’s meant to be—a rekindled romance with her old flame—from the villain—his perfectly lovable wife. Maybe that’s what’s so confusing, to a writer-viewer who thinks far too deeply about plot structure. This movie is about a hero on a quest. It’s just that that quest is completely delusional and the hero’s prize an impossibility. In a rare glimmer of clarity, Mavis actually tells her parents, “I think I’m an alcoholic.” But they just laugh it off, and her moment of honest self-analysis is gone as quickly as it came.

Now if you haven’t seen this film and this post is making it sound like a big drudgy bummer, I’ll tell you now, it’s really not. Because it’s pretty damn funny. It’s a dark comedy, but not in the overtly disturbing vein of, say, Fargo, or of Welcome to the Dollhouse or Happiness. The story’s far subtler than it would’ve been in the hands of a director like Todd Solondz, and far more authentic as a result (though I do love Solondz’s work, too.) It also manages to not be funny at the expense of its off-the-rails protagonist…although much of the humor does spring from Mavis’s self-destructive behavior. It’s funny in a way that borders on cringe-y, but doesn’t quite take us there. It’s funny because it’s completely, nakedly honest—which gets to the heart of why I like this movie so much.

After mulling all this over for a few weeks, I decided to watch it again, for this post, to try to analyze it as an anti-heroine study. [I’d just watched Fish Tank (2009), another movie centered around a highly unlikable heroine, and part of me wondered if I’d like Young Adult less, because in Fish Tank, though the heroine is thoroughly wretched, she’s undeniably the victim of her environment.] I imagined this re-watch would lead me to a conclusion of some sort, likely one along the lines of, “I like Young Adult because it’s a big fuck-you to all the fiction conventions that say only redeemable women deserve to have stories told about them.”

And I did watch it again. And I still liked it, though not for the reason I’d expected. It’s not a big fuck-you to anybody, because I honestly believe this film has no agenda. There’s no moral. We’re not asked to love her, or hate her, or root for her, or to feel better about ourselves in the face of her awfulness—we’re only asked to watch. Mavis is neither redeemed nor punished; she’s simply presented. And I think simply by being presented, just as she is…that was kind of awesome. Because I know this woman.

I see bits of Mavis in myself. I see her alcoholism in Coworker A, her capacity for self-sabotage in Friend B, her outrageous denial of reality in Cousin C, her pettiness and obsession and self-righteousness in Acquaintances X,Y, and Z. We all know these people. We are these people, to varying extents. If we’re human and have ever interacted with other humans, we’ve interacted with Mavis’s breed of mental illness—the tricky kind that we’re often so quick to write off as irresponsibility or wildness or a lack of self-control, to diagnose as a failure of character or temperament.

So that’s why I liked this movie, I’ve decided. Because I want there to be stories about these people. Actual people. With actual, everyday issues, the kind that don’t play so nice with fiction conventions. I like it for the same reason I like Hoarders and The Biggest Loser and Obsessed and Intervention—because it makes typically private dysfunctions public. [I won't deny that those shows capitalize on people's issues, nor that they make voyeurs of their viewers; but I do believe it's valuable for such behavioral disorders and addictions to be hauled out of their closets and presented as what they are: common.] The interesting thing is, those shows are nonfiction, for all intents and purposes. Young Adult is not. And those shows all attempt to offer their subjects a solution. And yet, as fiction, Young Adult has the power to definitively fix its subject…but it chooses not to.

This could easily have been a Hollywood movie about a “psychotic prom-queen bitch” going back home and getting her comeuppance…and if it were a romance, perhaps her humbling revelations would transform her into someone “worthy” of love [gag], and she’d ultimately wind up with the underdog hero. But this ain’t that movie.

Right at the very end, after Mavis implodes at her high-school boyfriend’s baby naming party then has drunken, lonely sex with Matt, she wakes a nearly changed woman. She runs into Matt’s sister Sandra (who has a longstanding, creepy, heroine-worship lady-boner for Mavis) in the kitchen, and even goes as far as confessing, “It’s really difficult for me to feel happy,” and, “I need to change, Sandra.”

To which Sandra says, “No you don’t.”

The exchange goes on for a few more lines, and sadly for Mavis, this is pretty much all it takes for her to talk herself out of her rock bottom, and indeed out of changing. Sandra’s like the human embodiment of that thing in our heads that tells us what we want to hear, vindicates us when we least deserve it, dismisses our most productive moments of self-questioning, and convinces us we’re fine. When we’re so not fine. The voice that tells us that we’re right, that everyone else is wrong, and to go ahead and keep taking the righteous path of least resistance.

Which is what Mavis does, as the movie ends. She’s had a revelation, hit bottom, decided briefly, aloud, that she needs help. But once again, the clarity and opportunity are snatched away as quickly as they came, and she’s back on her dysfunctional track. Would she have wound up there if Sandra hadn’t talked her out of changing? Maybe. Likely, if this were reality. For plenty of people in a position like Mavis’s, the simple lack of an enabling voice like Sandra’s isn’t enough. They need many voices, shouting for them to get help. And often even that isn’t enough. So no, maybe Sandra’s not to blame. Maybe she simply got Mavis’s latest descent off to a more efficient start, saving her the trouble of slowly stumbling back down her usual hill by giving her a nice, swift kick.

It’s not an upbeat ending. It’s not a hopeful ending. It’s not any kind of ending, really, says the traditional storytelling arc, because the hero’s journey hasn’t led anywhere. The hero hasn’t changed. With a professional shift on her horizon, Mavis is approaching a crossroads, but the events of the film haven’t equipped her with a better calibrated compass or more accurate map.

It’s a downer ending, but I don’t hate it. It’s realistic, for better or worse, and though everything in a fiction writer’s programming is telling them to expect either redemption (Mavis is rescued by Matt’s love) or tragedy (Mavis fatally self-destructs) it offers neither. It’s not a satisfying ending, but it does feel…right. The rest of the movie pulls no punches when it comes to presenting the challenges of living with addiction and mental illness, so why should the ending suddenly go Hollywood? Mavis is neither redeemed nor condemned—she’s simply presented. And she made me think in ways no other film protagonist has in months. And I think that, in itself, is a mark of successful storytelling.

About Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. Read more >
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14 Responses to Why on Earth I Liked Young Adult

  1. taragel says:

    I think you really nailed why, especially in your last paragraph, this movie is so appealing (or was to me too anyway) and such a breath of fresh air. The ending feels right. Mavis is going to go on living in her bubble of surface superiority and faux-self confidence…and that’s actually kind of enjoyable. I really liked that someone was telling her she wasn’t broken and didn’t need to be fixed, even if she really COULD benefit from therapy or meds or what have you.

    I think far too often Hollywood approaches women’s life stories as things in need of fixing, especially if they are “unlikable” (i.e. flawed, selfish, not maternal/nurturing, etc.) I really loved that they didn’t give Mavis a broken-bird fix-it ending.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      That’s actually a really interesting point, and one I’d hadn’t considered—that the movie might be saying Mavis doesn’t need help. That’s she’s happy, living in her delusional bubble… Though I really don’t think she is. She doesn’t need a home in the ‘burbs and a baby, necessarily, but as someone who’s known a few Mavises, I did desperately wish she’d get some help, if not necessarily be “fixed.”

      • taragel says:

        Oh, I don’t think she was happy, no, or necessarily that the movie was even trying to say she didn’t need help. I think you were supposed to see her reaction to Sandra as “Oh no! You’re GOING THE WRONG WAY!” But…I just kind of perversely liked that that was the revelation Mavis had? Lol. That had a very “I’m Cordelia Chase, bitches.” tone and IDK. I liked it! Maybe because it’s a black comedy… Maybe because it was a movie and I knew the limited amount of time I’d spend with Mavis was just about over. (On a TV show, for a beloved character, I’d feel quite differently I think?)

        Usually I’m a big believer in stories needing to be about change, but this was the exception to the rule for me for some reason.

  2. Erin Satie says:

    I have to say, I saw that final scene with Sandra the nurse in a completely different way. To me, it was final and egregious proof that Mavis was incapable of changing.

    I don’t have the move in front of me, but if I recall that scene – it was a really memorable one – Sandra sits down and she talks all about the difficulties of her life. You get this glimpse into Sandra’s life and feel this huge swell of pity and empathy, but Mavis’ only response is to talk about herself, think about herself, make the whole encounter about herself.

    I know I have a very specific and particular interpretation of the movie – I think Mavis is a sort of walking bubble of dream/fiction in world that is otherwise very real – but I did think that scene was another example of the dissonance between fiction-structure and real life. In fiction-structure, the story is about Mavis and Mavis gets to have her moment. Her rock-bottom and self-realization and some kind of redemption. In real life, the world doesn’t revolve around one protagonist and when a person sits down and shares her pain with you, you have feelings and care and interact. Sandra had things WAY rougher than Mavis, but Mavis is not interested, and not sympathetic.

    I really don’t think this is a movie about a mentally ill woman. I thought the Mavis character was pure fantasy, and a statement about how cruel and one-dimensional our hopes and dreams are, what a thin and inadequate vision of adulthood we form as children. I think it was a comment on the teenage years, which so many people spend in a state of savage self-absorption.

    I think mostly it was a request that we kindly let our childish dreams die, because if we carry them into adulthood or try to make them real, they would be horrible.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      I hadn’t thought about the scene with Sandra from that angle, obviously…I saw Sandra as a starstruck enabler, just as delusional as Mavis in a way, to believe this trainwreck of a woman led an enviable, glamorous life! “Take me with you.” To where?? To what? The woman’s so clearly miserable! But that’s interesting… I’ll be curious to see how that scene comes off, the next time I watch the movie.

      • Erin Satie says:

        Yes – Sandra was clearly troubled, and the fact that she was starstruck was a sign of how far along she was on her own downward spiral. To me, Mavis would have FULLY redeemed herself if, at that moment, she’d been able to really focus on Sandra – to empathize with her, to feel her pain, to at least try to counsel her. And she fully failed in her “journey” or “quest” because instead, she made the moment about herself.

        • Shelley says:

          Erin, now you’ve got me wanting to watch this, too! I need more hours in my day.

          • Erin Satie says:

            It’s really worth watching.

            I think my interpretation has a lot to do with the fact that I watched Young Adult almost back to back with Shame and Drive – I was kind of thrilled that Cara mentioned Shame in her discussion. All three movies feature protagonists who are gorgeous on the outside but empty on the inside.

  3. Shelley says:

    Once again, Cara has me all intrigued about a movie (I still think I need to rewatch Pretty Woman after your last movie post). I’ve taught creative writing classes before, and when I did, I always told my students (middle and high-schoolers) that their character had to change. They joked that I always said, “Yes, but how is your character different now?” by saying it with me.

    So I wonder, then, about fictional narratives where there is no change. I wonder if there are books that have this happen, and if so, would I find them satisfying, or merely interesting? I haven’t seen Young Adult (another one on my list now), so I don’t know how I’d react to this movie. And I know at some point, I must have read books that have a similar take on character, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

  4. I love your interpretation of this…the idea of it being about mental illness, and about just presenting a female character and not demanding that you see things one way or another.

    But my problem with it stems from just how crazily she acts. I think the movie just makes her a tad overblown, which makes the whole thing lean towards the idea of it being a skewering of the bitch prom queen, rather than a presentation or examination – for me, at least. And though I like that she’s unapologetic at the end, and also found it realistic that she dismissed the idea of changing…by denying her any kind of change at the end it ultimately sends the message:

    Yeah, you shouldn’t feel sorry for women like that. She’s awful and always will be, because that’s what evil prom queens are.

    It just came off as being a bit two dimensional – but brave, in that it wasn’t two dimensional in the usual sort of way. It wasn’t all happy flowers and now she’s a better person, which would have been insulting. Just wish it had maybe found some middle ground, however. A little more nuance in the portrayal of her breakdown. Not quite so much I’M GOING TO BARGE IN AND STEAL YOUR HAPPY LIFE LIKE THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST BECAUSE I AM EVOL PROM BITCH AND YOU ARE ALL WORTHY AND GOOD.

  5. Lila says:

    I really dug this movie and had also come away with the impression that it was about a woman who was mentally ill, but Erin’s comments have given me pause. Really well said. Although I think that, like Cara, I see a lot of Mavis (and Sandra, too) in people I know (and sometimes in me, of course). For those who leave town, and for those who stay but don’t grow, the high school hierarchy remains static. So I didn’t think Mavis’s character was a complete fantasy. She was real people for me. Although yeah, a bit overblown at times, but that’s what made it watchable. I think I would just have been depressed by it if she weren’t a bit ridiculous.

    I found it fascinating that there were several moments for redemption — her relationship with Matt, her admission to her parents that she thinks she’s an alcoholic, her comment to Sandra — yet in every case she’s validated by their need for her to still be the golden girl. The fact these people were more comfortable pretending she was fine than helping her confront her problems felt true to life. (Matt confronts her, sure, but not in a terribly helpful way, not that he should have to.)

    This is one of a few movies I saw this year where I wondered if the marketing people had actually seen it. On top of the tag lines and commercials, because Patton Oswalt was in it I made assumptions about what it was going to be. But of course his character is terribly tragic, as well as snarky and welcome comic relief. He made the movie for me. And even he, Mavis’s one hope for a breakthrough, who makes it clear he doesn’t think much of her, negates all that by being just as frozen in time and, of course, by wanting to sleep with her. Validation yet again.

    Thanks so much for writing about this movie. I’d forgotten how much it impressed me. And how much I want to see Shame but somehow haven’t managed to yet.

    • LOL yeah, I do agree – if she hadn’t been overblown it wouldn’t have been as entertaining a movie. It’s a double edged sword!

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Love your observation about Mavis not being the only one living in denial—all the people who enabled her were deluded in their own ways, as well. It takes a whole village, huh?

      Shame is heeeaaavvvyyy. Watch it with a big glass of red wine, on a slow-paced, rainy afternoon.