Movie Review: Young Adult

The new movie Young Adult tells the story of a 37 year-old woman who is a ghost writer for a fading series of young adult novels. The film was written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, who also collaborated on the movie Juno.

Mavis Gary, played by Charlize Theron, lives with her dog in a messy Minneapolis condominium. Her life is a wreck. The book series is coming to an end, her marriage has ended and she’s drinking far too much.

An email attachment brings a photo of Mavis’s former boyfriend’s new baby. Mavis packs her dog in a bag and takes for her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota. Her goal is simple, if far-fetched: she will take back her former boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson) and turn around what she is convinced must be a life that is every bit as miserable as her own. Mavis and Buddy, who were once Mercury’s first couple as teens, surely belong together and Mavis will do whatever is necessary to bring them back together.

Mercury is not like nearby Lake Wobegon, where all the young people above average. Mercury is home to all the big boxes of American suburbia with local hangouts being replaced by national restaurant chains.

By Mercury standards Buddy is doing just fine. He has an average job with an average marriage and an average baby. By contrast, Mavis is an achiever. To the locals she is the rare success story, having escaped to “Minneapple.” Once its prom queen, Mavis is now an outsider. From her physical appearance to the car she drives (a mini-Cooper), she looks like a successful woman of the world.

But Mavis is a very troubled young woman. Hitting a local bar on her first night in town, she befriends a former high school classmate, Matt (Patton Oswalt), who in their senior year had been bludgeoned by local athletes who believed he was gay. On the surface Matt is Mavis’s opposite:fat, partially-disabled and socially limited. Down deep they have a great deal in common: they are lonely, deeply unhappy and lacking in self-esteem.

Matt sees immediately that Mavis’s plan to reclaim Buddy is doomed to fail. He tries to help her understand that what she is trying to do is deeply wrong but Mavis won’t listen. She is living in a bubble in which everything comes together to convince her that the world is as she has created it in her own mind. Her evil scheme to reclaim her former life and lover leads inevitably to her public humiliation.

As the film came to an end I found myself provoked, which is fine. Mavis and her fellow characters are, of course, products of fiction. They are no more real than the teenagers who occupy Mavis’s young adult novels. Sure, they reflect realities in American culture. There are, out there, Mavises and Buddys and Matts whose lives reflect lots of pathological conditions and artists of various kinds do us all a service by exposing those conditions and probing their meanings.

There is something missing, though, in the portrayal presented by Young Adult and that is the role of religion.

As best I can tell there is nothing recognizably religious in little Mercury, Minnesota and I find that pretty inconceivable. We aren’t told exactly where Mercury is located, but it likely sits in the Congressional district represented by presidential candidate Michelle Bachman, a land of evangelicals, Lutherans, and even (if we take Garrison Keillor to heart) Unitarians. The closest thing to religious practice we see in the movie is a “naming ceremony” for Buddy’s daughter, which is presented as an explicitly non-religious event.

I have no problem with a film that ignores or downplays religion but don’t understand how a film like Young Adult that seems anxious to probe its characters’ inner lives can do so. Mavis Gary has problems. The film clues us in to a lot of them: alcoholism, arrested development, inability to deal with intimacy, amorality, perhaps even evil. I’m no therapist and wouldn’t pretend to diagnose them all, but for 94 minutes I felt I was observing a person experiencing a deep spiritual crisis. One could take away some of her afflictions but Mavis would remain lost. She is locked in a career without much purpose or direction, seems to have no meaningful relationships with people who care about her and seems unfamiliar with core religious concepts like hope, redemption, forgiveness and even grace.

The film’s producers have spoken openly about their determination to show that women share with men the ability to be lousy at living. (See Writer Diablo Cody is proud of the fact that the movie presents an “unsympathetic female lead” and that the producers have resisted temptations to end the movie with a sense of redemption for Mavis. Cody says they have forced us to face into Mavis’s “straight dark tunnel.”

This may be brave on their part and I respect their artistic judgment, but is it really true? Is American culture locked in an inescapable straight dark tunnel?I refuse to accept that judgment. The Statement of Faith of my church of choice, the United Church of Christ, speaks of a God who seeks in holy love “to save all people from aimlessness and sin.”

I would like to think that “all people” includes Mavis Gary and that the state of her soul and that of countless others would be better served if towns like Mercury included churches and partner faith communities with a sense of a calling to reach out to people captured in dark tunnels that lead to nowhere.

This past week the local media have focused on the New England Patriots game with the Denver Broncos (a game the Patriots won handily enough!). We’ve read and heard a lot about the Broncos’ quarterback, Tim Tebow, who is famous for his public displays of affection for Jesus and his passionate Christian faith. It’s been quite unnerving for a lot of the commentators who say they don’t have a problem with religion but that it ought to be a private matter. While Tim Tebow seems to be a fine fellow with appropriate respect for team colleagues and others who don’t share his faith views, I share some of the media’s discomfort. At the same time, I like the fact that a public figure is unashamed to go public on matters of the spirit. Wearing Bible verses under Tim Tebow’s eyes is no more likely to make a difference in Mavis Gray’s life than the same verses printed on the cola cups at In-N-Out Burger, but they nonetheless suggest a willingness to share a word of hope in the middle of what looks like an increasingly barren spiritual landscape. Why, I wonder, do religious people who choose to speak publicly of their faith have to have such awful theology?

I’m glad we saw the movie. Charlize Theron is a marvelous actress and there are brilliant and very funny moments in the film. I hope that those who bring to this Christmas season a sense of fervent expectation can think a bit about the Mavis Gary’s of the world and how they might know a different world than the straight dark tunnel they live in.