Feminism / Films

A Fine Frenzy: With an Outspoken Anti-Heroine and a Feminist Lens, ‘Young Adult’ Is My Favorite Film of the Year

Cross-posted at Bitch Flicks.

We so often see men in films as wayward fuck-ups. Ben Stiller in Greenberg, Zach Braff in Garden State, Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets all fill this role. Selfish asshats who do the wrong thing, lack ambition, or screw someone over for their own selfish needs. And yet they’re somehow loveable and charming. You champion them, hoping they’ll succeed and grow…just a little.

Audiences want female leads nice, amiable and likeable. Not messy, complicated, complex and certainly not unlikeable. Heaven forbid! But that’s precisely the role Charlize Theron steps into in Young Adult.

In this witty, hilarious and bittersweet dramedy, Theron plays Mavis Gary, an author of young adult books living in Minneapolis. Mavis’ life is a hot mess. She’s divorced, drinks her life away and the book series she writes is coming to an end. She was the popular mean girl in high school who escaped to the big city. Mavis returns to her small hometown in Minnesota full of Taco Bells and KFCs intending to reclaim her old glory days and her ex-boyfriend, who’s happily married with a new baby. As she fucks up, she eventually questions what she wants out of life.

Young Adult is a fantastic film, the best I’ve seen all year. I seriously can’t say enough good things about it. Diablo Cody’s feminist lens and sharply funny dialogue fuse with Jason Reitman’s knack for bittersweet direction, buoyed by stellar portrayals.

A force of nature, Theron gives both a subtly nuanced and bravura performance. In her Golden Globe-nominated role, she makes a flawed, cranky, bitchy, selfish, alcoholic charismatic and likeable. When she’s doing something despicable (which happens all too often), I found myself cringing yet simultaneously rooting for her. That’s not easy to do. Theron, who’s been called a transformational chameleon, particularly for her award-winning role in Monster, melts into this role. She imbues Mavis with depth, caustic wit, raw anger and vulnerability. It’s hard to see the boundaries where Theron begins and Mavis ends.

Suffering from depression, Mavis tries to drown her sorrows, unleashing a destructive tornado of chaos. Even though Mavis fled her small town, she’s haunted by the prime of her youth. Most of us have moved on from high school. But Mavis hasn’t grown up yet. With unwavering determination and delusion, she thinks if she can recapture the past, all her problems will be solved.

With her popular girl swagger, you can picture how she sashayed down the halls in high school (and probably shoved people into lockers or hurled insults). That same bravado fools her into thinking she can bend the world to her will.

She finds an unlikely ally and confidante in nerdy, sarcastic yet tender Matt (Patton Oswalt), a former bullied classmate in an achingly touching performance. Some of the best scenes contain Mavis and Matt volleying their biting banter.

What made the film brutally funny is Mavis tosses retorts people think but would never dream of actually saying. She says hilariously wrong things. Matt asks her if she moved back to town, she replies, “Ewww, gross.” She shamelessly throws herself at a married man. When Matt reminds her that Buddy, her married ex-boyfriend (Patrick Wilson), has a baby, she retorts, “Babies are boring!” And trust me. I’m not doing Theron’s comic abilities justice.

Uncomfortably funny, hilariously heartbreaking, Young Adult passes the Bechdel Test several times. In one scene, the bandmates in the all-female group Nipple Confusion (love that name!), who also happen to be Mavis’ former high school classmates, briefly debate Mavis and her dubious intentions. Mavis confronts compassionate Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), Buddy’s wife and the object of Mavis’s vitriolic hatred. Also, Mavis confides in Matt’s sister Sandra (Collette Wolfe), who desperately wants to escape small-town life, about the course her life has taken.

I felt a sigh of relief while watching this film. It felt fantastic to have a woman quip snarky comments that maybe she shouldn’t say but she does anyway. Because Mavis doesn’t give a shit what people think. She doesn’t conform to other people’s standards of who she should be. Most movies suppress women’s rage. Not this one. As the awesome Melissa Silverstein at Women and Hollywood wrote:

“This film is a fucking bitchy breath of fresh air.”

Hollywood purports a double standard that only men can play unsympathetic roles. If a female actor portrays a complex character, she’s too often labeled a bitch. People don’t usually want to see complicated or unsympathetic women on-screen.

Besides the fabulous Kristen Wiig in the hilarious Bridesmaids, Lena Dunham in Tiny Furniture and Julia Roberts in the god-awful My Best Friend’s Wedding (which Young Adult strangely parallels – both contain selfish female protagonists struggling to recapture the past, hoping to break up a wedding/marriage), there really aren’t many examples of women in this kind of unlikeable or flawed role.

In an interview with Silverstein, outspoken feminist (woo hoo!) Diablo Cody shares her inspiration for creating an unlikeable character:

“The idea of a cold, unlikeable woman or a woman who is not in control of herself is genuinely frightening to people because it threatens civilization itself or threatens the American family. But I don’t know why people are always willing to accept and even like flawed male characters.  We’ve seen so many loveable anti-heroes who are curmudgeons or addicts or bad fathers and a lot of those characters have become beloved icons and I don’t see women allowed to play the same parts.  So it was really important to me to try and turn that around.”

With female writers comprising 24% of ALL writers in Hollywood and women in only 33% of speaking roles in films (god that makes me cringe), it’s vital to have more women writing scripts to yield women’s diverse perspectives and stories.

Young Adult is entirely told from Mavis’ perspective. As Mavis scribes the last book in Waverly Prep, a Young Adult series, her writing mirrors events and feelings in her own life. It could have easily veered off course to examine how Mavis’ inappropriate flirting (or rather throwing herself at him) affected Buddy. But the film astutely anchors itself to Mavis, a unique female voice.

I often lament the lack of female-centric films as most either feature men in the spotlight or have women as merely secondary characters. If we want more diverse films, including those where women are front and center, we need to support those films by voting with our dollars and going to the box office.

At first, it seems Young Adult might succumb to the same fate as so many other films and end up revolving around Mavis finding love. Men go on quests and emotional journeys. They learn. They grow. Women often stagnate. Or more common, their lives revolve around men. They wait around for love, seek love, find love, and turn themselves inside out for love…and ultimately a man. We don’t often see them doing things for themselves.

That’s the rare beauty of Young Adult. It’s not really about Mavis finding love. It’s about confronting your mistakes, letting go of the past and growing up. Too many movies reinforce the notion careers and friends don’t count. It’s only your love life that matters. Only love can save you. But sometimes, you can save yourself.

Life is messy, complicated and difficult. Women can be too. It’s about time we see more roles reflecting that on-screen.


5 thoughts on “A Fine Frenzy: With an Outspoken Anti-Heroine and a Feminist Lens, ‘Young Adult’ Is My Favorite Film of the Year

  1. Great post! I love Diablo Cody and it’s really insightful how you observed society’s trend towards complex men (we can name like a handful) yet are loathe to explore a hard, cool female onscreen. This is just the movie we need after all those family-baby dramedies that have puked all over the screen recently (The Change-Up, for instance).

    I heard about this movie and I’ll check it out now. 🙂 Rock on!

  2. Great review. I also liked Young Adult because it was so refreshing to see the type of character Charlize Theron places.

    I’m not sure I agree with the comparison with Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, though. She wasn’t trying to break up a wedding/marriage – she was trying to be a good maid of honor to her friend but kept messing up. I don’t think her character was of the same unapologetically bitchy mold as Charlize Theron in Young Adult. She was more awkward and unhappy, and therefore “easier” to like.

  3. First of all, Kristen Wiig is brilliant.
    I hadn’t watched SNL in years, but recently went back, after watching Wiig’s various
    characters on the recent Katy Perry episode.
    She’s easily the breakout star of that cast, imo.
    She is very, very, very good at her craft.

    “Young Adult” is the one film i am dying to see.
    Once i read the premise, i thought, what a great idea for a character & film.
    I think, in some ways, we never completely outgrow our High School days.
    My sister who’m is married, with two young children, said to me, during Christmas:
    “Sometimes i think about certain things that happened to me in High School, and i
    think of all the things i SHOULD have said, in those situations.”
    I guess a lot of that stuff still lingers, that period in your life.

  4. Pingback: Movie Review: Young Adult « Tiny Heroes

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