Soon after a messy divorce and stalling book sales, Mavis believes the solution to her problems lies in finding true love, specifically in her high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). There’s only one problem: Buddy has a wife and a newborn baby. But that doesn’t stop Mavis, and why should it? Raised on a “take-what-you-want” mentality, Mavis has evolved into a terrible person. She questions a volunteer’s motivation, she calls young children “it”, and she refuses to pay for a pet deposit. What’s a little adultery. Like the young adult demographic she writes for, Mavis’ world revolves around her own happiness — a mode of regressive thinking that left her shattered and lonely.
Mavis is, of course, someone familiar to all of us — the grown-up “mean girl” who we mutually loathed and admired. And it’s in this relationship, the town’s love-hate response to Mavis that leaves her in a vicious cycle of self-destructive behavior. In her battle for Buddy’s heart, Mavis inadvertently befriends old-classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). And while he (and others) attempt to steer her in the right direction, their juvenile admiration for Mavis ultimately thwarts their attempt to raise a child. So with all her beauty and her talent, Mavis remains who she was — a selfish, navel-gazing adult trapped in her own adolescence.
Theron is flawless in her portrayal of the awful, coldblooded and sour to the point of hilarity. Reitman is decidedly patient in savoring the awkward tension of Mavis in her original habitat. And Cody shows a maturing control over her voice, replacing the pop culture-heavy references with a more personal account. Where the film comes off flat, however, is Mavis never seems to come off human enough. Young Adult had the potential to create one of the most tragic characters in film. But Mavis always seemed like our re-imagining of what a bitch would act like, not the bitch inside us all.
The only character that doesn’t keep us at arms length is Matt. Oswalt gives an honest performance that fully taps into the complicated nature of revisiting past relationships and old demons. In many ways, I left the theater hoping Young Adult wasn’t a cross-section, a character study into the anatomy of a bitch. I left hoping there’d be a spin-off on the anatomy of the more believable Matt FreeHauf.