Young Adult review

Charlize Theron gives what may be the boldest, bravest acting performance of the year, in Jason Reitman's Young Adult. Here's our review...

There’s a reason why Emily Browning, I’ve concluded, is being overlooked for awards recognition for her stark performance in Sleeping Beauty. In Julia Leigh’s film, Browning lays herself bare in a literal sense, in a performance that’s brave, and not without impact.

Charlize Theron in Young Adult? She finds the gaps in between as well. She doesn’t present so much the extremes, but pitches her performance just a few careful steps back from there. It’s immensely controlled.

In Mavis, she creates a three dimensional, pretty monstrous character, one in whom writer Diablo Cody invests real care and diligence. It’s a rare union of words on the page and an actress who doesn’t hold back, and Theron’s performance in Young Adult is quite, quite brilliant. It’s a genuine creation of a unsympathetic yet watchable character from fresh, and you can’t imagine too many high profile actresses even having the courage to take the movie on, yet alone excel in it.

Browning being overlooked for awards recognition? I can cope with that. Charlize Theron? Well, those who have already seen Young Adult will appreciate already just what an injustice has been done. 

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However, don’t be mistake for thinking that Young Adult is the kind of film that’s only worth watching for a strong acting performance (the piss-poor The Iron Lady, I’m looking at you). The film that Theron is at the heart of is a strong, often incredibly uncomfortable piece of work in its own right, and an open demonstration of the range and talent of both Cody, and director Jason Reitman.

The pair previously collaborated on the more accessible Juno, but Young Adult couldn’t be much more different. It’s centred around the aforementioned Mavis, a self-centred writer of teen fiction, who we meet in the aftermath of her divorce. And she has a plan: to return to her home town, to woo back her ex-boyfriend (Patrick Wilson), who just happens to be married, and with a newborn child. That’s about as upbeat as it gets.

It’s an unpleasant plan, that Mavis goes about in not particularly pleasant ways. But it’s one that brings her into the world of Matt Freehauf, a seeming stranger at first, who it turns out she saw pretty much every day back when they were at school. Not that she remembers.

Their relationship proves to be a fascinating one, with both facing issues in their lives that aren’t dissimilar, even if the circumstances are some way apart. Freehauf is played by Patton Oswalt, and his is a name you can also comfortably add to the list of unfair Oscar snubs this year. Again, his character isn’t always entirely likeable, but his performance is outstanding.

There are interesting, bold, morality choices that Reitman and Cody make with Young Adult, and it’d be remiss of me to spoil them here. They’re the kind of risky decisions that may sour the film for some, perhaps, but I felt it really gave an otherwise quality drama a real sense of added reality to it. It’s a three-act story, certainly, with three-act character progression, but you’d hardly suggest that Mavis goes through a stereotypical journey here. 

That’s not the story that Reitman wants to tell. What’s obvious, though, is that the extraordinary progression of his directorial career continues here, and he remains a helmer without a bad film to his name (although I do wonder if some of his editing was perhaps a little too smart in the early part of the film).

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In the case of Young Adult, there’s a scene near the end that’s as perfectly pitched, and incredibly uncomfortable, as anything you’re likely to see on a cinema screen this year. 

It’s one of those moments, too, where you clearly appreciate a good director. In different hands, the balance could so easily go off-kilter. Reitman, though, is firmly tuned in to what he wants to do, and aided by Cody’s best script to date, Young Adult ends up having as much right as any film to call foul about the Oscar nominations.

Young Adult won’t be to everyone’s taste, but that’s no criticism. Quite the contrary. As the nervous laughter at the screening I attended demonstrates, it’s a piece that leaves you unsure quite how to react at times, and it’s inevitably going to leave some cold. It is, though, a brave, confident, grown-up piece of film making, anchored around two performances that deserve mentioning in the company of any seen on the big screen in the past twelve months.

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4 out of 5