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.