We’ve seen the statistics time and time again: women don’t get to see themselves on screen. Representation is lacking, and that’s doubly true for women of color, older women, and women who are anything but a super pert size 0. But there are times when the movie gods are kind, and the Powers that Be allow something to slip through the cracks into the mainstream and we get to see a proper, honest glimpse of ourselves. These experiences are highly individual since, suprise!, women aren’t a monolith. For me, that moment came in the form of Young Adult. Since covering Juno a couple weeks ago, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman’s superior collaboration has been niggling in the back of my head, and I was happy to revisit it.

YOUNG ADULT
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Diablo Cody
Key Cast: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elisabeth Reaser, Collette Wolfe

In Short
Mavis Gary, ghostwriter of a once-popular YA novel series, is about to lose her job when the series gets canceled. Divorced, drunk, and struggling with her last book, she decides to go home after receiving a birth announcement from her high school boyfriend, Buddy, and his wife. Her goal is to save him from what she perceives as a boring family prison. Once she’s there, they do reconnect, but he is not interested, and she keeps persisting. She also befriends Matt, a man crippled by high school bullies who thought he was gay. She and Matt drink away their sorrows, and eventually, she lets her anger take over, revealing to Buddy’s wife at a baby naming ceremony that, seventeen years ago, she had his miscarriage. She storms off to Matt’s house in tears. He comforts her, they have sex, and the next morning, after a brief encounter with his sycophantic sister, Mavis returns to Minneapolis, unbothered by the chaos she’s left in her wake.

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As Cinema
One of the biggest crimes in Academy history is that it received not a single Oscar nomination. The script is nearly perfect, and Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt both deliver career-best performances. If you ever needed proof of latent sexism in the film industry, it’s here. This movie is deeply emotional, profound, as nihilistic as anything the Coen’s have made, and so perfectly acted. Do yourself a favor if you have not seen it and watch it right now.

The Horror
I’ve written before about some of cinema’s sloppy ladies, and with the recent popularity of shows like Girls and Broad City and movies like Bridesmaids and Trainwreck, sloppiness seems like a cute, temporary state that we either grow from or solve. In Young Adult, her sloppiness is a byproduct of depression and alcoholism that is not cute, surmountable, or healthy. But it is forgivable, and that’s the film’s point. If Mavis were a man, this would be Oscar-bait about a middle aged guy coming to terms with who he is, riding triumphantly into the sunset. Because it’s a woman, it feels gross, unseemly, and embarrassing at times. But Mavis Gary is, for me, the most realistic portrayal of womanhood. With a little more trauma and a couple of bad breaks, in a decade, I could be her — or at least a kindred spirit in booze consumption and weird anxious ticks. But the real miracle of Young Adult isn’t just seeing Mavis, it’s that we get to see a story that is kind to her, even as she’s an incredibly unlikable, selfish, narcissistic protagonist. Young Adult is about finding redemption not through others, but in our own narratives, and having the courage to carry on when life doesn’t work according to plan.

Mavis isn’t the only character portrayed with sympathy. Buddy’s wife, Beth is Mavis’s perceived antagonist, but she is a kindhearted woman who believes she can help. She’s never bad, and she does not seem to act from a place of obvious pity — she’s just tremendously misguided in that Minnesota-nice way. Mavis’s mother, although clueless, never feels like a caricature. It’s clear she wants Mavis to be happy, but she does not have the fortitude to actually help her daughter confront her problems. Most the women on screen are complex; they have a sense of existence beyond the confines of the screen that we often don’t even get from female lead characters, let alone tertiary players.

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Young Adult is also near and dear to my heart in its portrayal of the Midwest. Diablo Cody is from Minnesota by way of Northern Illinois, so she is my people. She so perfectly captures that particular embarrassment and shame one can only feel returning to a smallish town full of bad memories. Like Mavis forgot anything but Buddy from high school, I’ve managed to forget everything but ice cream and marching band… until I go back for a visit and it all comes back, reminding me that I’ll never be the freewheeling, classy city girl I so desperately try to emulate. When Mavis overdresses, name drops, and swaggers around like she is both an outsider and the queen, I know that feeling. When Matt has to continue to fight long-standing rumors about his sexuality despite his assault gaining national attention, I get that, to a smaller degree. To see Midwestern culture captured on screen so perfectly, to have those small burgs be a character in the same way New York is in every romantic comedy, is more valuable than I can possibly say. It feels as cinematically fresh as it does personally familiar, and even if this movie weren’t a radical lady movie, it would be special for that feeling alone.

Specificity can take a movie from good to great, and Young Adult is very specific. Mavis is a singular character, and I will be forever grateful she exists. I can only hope that other women, women different from me, can have these movie watching experiences, and that they become more and more frequent.

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