Guys like me are born loving women like you," says Patton Oswalt's Matt Freehauf, the portly sci-fi geek and onetime classmate of Charlize Theron's former prom-queen-turned-trainwreck, Mavis Gary. Although the line is meant to comfort Mavis at a particularly vulnerable moment, it's delivered with pitch-perfect resignation: Life would be much easier for guys like him if they weren't born that way.
In a sense, the statement also captures the essence of Young Adult, the second movie from the writer-director team of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman after the wonderful but divisive Juno. Young Adult — which follows Mavis on a mission to win back her high-school sweetheart Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who's now married with a newborn — cares deeply for its comically pathetic heroine and Oswalt's limping conscience by her side.
It's hard not to love Mavis for her numerous flaws. She considers herself lucky to have escaped the rural mediocrity of her hometown and made a decent living in the "big city" (Minneapolis), ghostwriting YA fiction for a series that, unknown to her, has reached the end of its popularity.
One day, she gets an e-mail blast from Buddy's brood with a photo of their adorable new baby, and something just snaps. She packs up her Mini Coop, pops in a worn-down Teenage Fanclub cassette, and heads home to reclaim her glory — or, failing that, get plastered and hit rock bottom.
In her stupor, she meets Matt, whom she recognizes only from news reports from long ago when he was beaten within an inch of his life by their school's jocks for being gay. His time in the spotlight faded, he says, when they learned he was not, in fact, gay. He is, however, a decent guy, so when he learns of Mavis' nefarious plan, he feels compelled to stay by her side and try to talk her out of it.
What unfolds from there is a remarkably honest film built around Theron's endlessly complicated performance. Mavis is beautiful without trying, and she knows it — Theron's and Reitman's nudges at middlebrow culture's acceptance of that kind of elegant slumming doesn't feel condescending. We can discern when she's aware of her irrationality and when she's genuinely ignorant and/or incapacitated, and Theron's subtle toggling between the two is a marvel to watch.
Young Adult is as much a triumph for its makers as for its star. Reitman and Cody have both grown since Juno. Gone are Cody's cutesy turns of phrase and Reitman's faux-everyman moralizing that peaked with his last outing, Up in the Air. This is a movie shot through with observational clarity, lived-in performances, and touching nuances. Mavis would despise it.