Saturday, December 17, 2011

Girls, Interrupted

I saw Young Adult last weekend, having heard close to nothing about it.  That means that unlike a lot of audiences I went in with no preconceived notions from trailers or advertising, which means that unlike reviews I've read from several critics, I wasn't expecting a comedy.  I imagine the actual movie is sort of a sucker punch if you're expecting a comedy – there are funny parts, but mostly the only real "comedy" is of the second-hand embarrassment variety.  

Still, I was surprised to read the really negative review on Pajiba today.  (Be warned, there are spoilers there.)  And since I'm going to probably hit some spoilers too, I'll warn you not to keep reading if you don't want to know more about the movie.

Still with me?  Neat.  So anyway, the Pajiba review is mostly concerned with Mavis, the admittedly unlikeable main character played by Charlize Theron.  Daniel Carlson (the reviewer in question and the site's editor) takes issue with the fact that Theron's character doesn't show enough sympathetic characteristics or growth.

Here's an excerpt:

What really makes Mavis’s whole non-arc so tragically bad is the way writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman intercede at every turn to prevent her from gaining even an ounce of self-awareness. She begins and ends the film in the same state of bitter self-pity and total denial of the world around her, and this is a state that is actively condoned by the writing and direction. This is not an accidental thing. This is not a skewed or stretched reading of the material. Mavis does her best to hurt those around her and promptly skates away, as if she never had cause to do anything else. Bad characters don’t have to become better, but they do need to be recognizably human. We don’t have to enjoy their choices or condone them, but we do have to connect to that spark of humanity inside them that made them act that way in the first place. There’s no chance of that here.

And I was surprised to read this, because there's a lot about the character that I did identify with.  Yes, she does and says terrible things I would never say or do.  Yes, I spent at least a third of the movie physically cringing because I was embarrassed for her even though I knew she wasn't real and didn't like her much anyway.  But there were pieces of her that I recognized as existing in myself too, and it was jarring to see them portrayed so realistically on screen. 

There's an opening sequence where Mavis goes through her daily routine:  she spends most of her time alone in her apartment with only the company of her dog and her television.  She spends too much time in front of the computer.  She falls asleep in front of the television.  She doesn't eat well, she doesn't get dressed and go out, she doesn't seem motivated or well socialized at all.  I watched this sequence in wide-eyed horror, realizing what a cutting remark it was on the character and how much it looks like my days at home. 

And now an interlude with a bit of disclosure on me, which I swear is relevant:  I've been medicated for major depressive disorder for about 8 years now and for ADD for about a year.  I'm currently going through a very slow divorce.  I have a Bachelor's degree in graphic design but I sell cosmetics in a mall (mostly by choice, though I took the job when I couldn't find design work and decided I liked it despite the enormous pay cut).  I'm often broke because of my choices, and my whole life is in a weird sort of limbo while I wait for the changes on the horizon and try to figure out how to start over at the age of 34. 

So I'm watching this character live a day that I recognize pretty well, and I'm understanding that the movie is telling me her life sucks, and I'm empathizing.  I'm sucked in.  And even though she spends the rest of the movie treating people horribly and doesn't wind up making the big dramatic change audiences have come to expect from such a character, I sympathize with her.  I get her in a weird way even if the things we have in common are mostly on the surface.  (She's looking to recapture high school glory; I ran like hell and never looked back.  Also she's kind of a sociopath and possibly alcoholic.)

I agree with Carlson that the ending felt rushed.  But I didn't mind that she didn't have some big revelatory moment where her life turns around.  Because in reality, that's not the way change usually happens.  People get stuck in ruts of self-destructive behavior.  We lose motivation and perspective.  And usually the path out of that and into something newer and better for us isn't big or dramatic or filled with eloquent speeches and epiphanies.  It's slow and painful and filled with pitfalls and self-delusions and failures.  Maybe if they make Young Adult 2 they can show us that process – but I don't see a movie like that making a lot of money.  It'd be too close to home. 

And that seems to be the primary complaint:  it's not funny enough, it lacks a dramatic revelation, it's too much like real life.  Too much of a person denying her problems and running from/self-medicating them the way people often really do.  And that's not what we've come to expect from the growing genre of movies and TV shows about the 30-ish existential crisis.  As more and more of Generations X and Y find ourselves with expensive educations we can't use in a crumbling economy or learning too late that the world is not as much our oyster as we'd hoped and been told.

You could see it in Clerks 2, where Dante struggles with a life that hadn't moved forward in a decade and with deciding between what conventionally defines "adult" and what made him happy.  You could see it in Garden State, where Zach Braff's protagonist spent the whole movie rethinking his life in the wake of his mother's death. 

Most of these characters do make reach some huge life-changing epiphany by the end of their films.  And even if things aren't left tied up in a neat bow, you walk out feeling optimistic and hopeful.  That YA didn't go that route didn't bother.  It terrified me, but it didn't bother me.  I say "terrified" because I can see myself ending up like Mavis – my depression gives me a lot of battles to fight, and one that I have yet to win in any capacity is the complete lack of ability to motivate myself.  So while I can't necessarily see myself treating other people with the disdain and lack of respect she does, I can definitely relate to the parts of her that are wallowing in a sort of pathetic and lonely stasis. 

Women in movies and TV shows like this are usually dealing with a crisis centered around a man –  like Debra Messing rebuilding her life during an unexpected divorce on TV's The Starter Wife.  And while Mavis in Young Adult is chasing a man on the surface, what she's really chasing isn't so much the man as what he represents.  She's at a transitional stage, and yearns for the popularity and glory of her youth instead of the unknown stretching before her.  So even though the character is terribly flawed and reaching desperately backward instead of forward, at least it's a movie that deals with the trendy new malaise applied to a female character without it being all about needing Mr. Right.

And now that I've said that, let me contradict myself.  I just started watching FOX's New Girl.  I'm totally hooked.  It's a funny show, and even if Zooey Deschanel's character is a tad too quirky to be believable, the male characters are sort of caricatures too, but they all still have enough heart and dimension to read as actual people. 

When I say I'm contradicting myself it's because Deschanel's character is redefining herself after being dumped by her long-term boyfriend.  So it's back to the whole "man" thing.  But I can sort of forgive that because it's a show about jumping into that scary void and learning who you are independent of your relationships and about embracing change even when it's scary and uncomfortable.  And given the place I'm in right now in my life, I much prefer the blueprint for transition presented by Deschanel's Jess than the one presented by Theron's Mavis. 

Is she a bit of a manic pixie dream girl?  Absolutely.  It's not a perfect show.  But it's funny and it doesn't treat it's characters with cynicism, and it's a much more optimistic look at the "where do I go from here?" scenario than most of its company in the genre, including Young Adult. 

Because seriously.  There are a few laughs, but YA is bleak.  It's not a bad movie, but don't expect to leave feeling awesome.  In fact I recommend going to see it and then firing up some New Girl on Hulu for a palate cleansing variation on the theme. 


  1. That fits what I'm going through right now it hurts. I graduated high school a year ago, I still live with my parents, and I don't even get out of bed because I don't feel there is a reason to.

    I don't know really what to do. I think I'll avoid this movie, in case I start crying or something

  2. That was a really good, insightful review. I was ambivalent about seeing this , but now I think I will.

  3. This is a fantastic review. There's a lot more to a movie than surface meaning at times and I can completely understand why you related to it. Far more people than the author of the review you mention realizes probably relate to it. Hell, HE probably relates to it on some level, and it scares him because of its lack of a "happy ending".

    Diablo Cody can do good work sometimes with general story arcs (if not actual lines...I dislike the slang). It doesn't always work, though...God I can't stand Jennifer's

  4. Something else that just occurred to me...the tagline of "Young Adult" is "Everyone Grows Old...Not Everyone Grows Up". Soooo, did this guy from Pajiba just not see that or something, going in?

  5. Thanks, Jason and Cryptic. I think that the tagline could easily be dismissed by the fact that similar movies feature a character who starts out that way but undergoes a major change. So if you went in expecting that sort of movie it could still be a big shock.

    Stephanie, I'm sorry to hear you're having a hard time. I hate getting unsolicited advice so I try not to give it, but please trust me when I say that if you can find a reason to get out and open up a bit you'll feel better. I often make plans with other people so I know I can't back out and stay home to force myself out of a rut.

  6. I'm 21; just realized several horrible truths about my life as a whole and I have mild depression so I get where this attitude the movie has is coming from. I'm even reaching back because in the High School years I had friends. Now at best I IM someone or give an old friends a call but I don't feel connected to many people and those I am connected with I wind up insulting because of low self confidence and because I'm insane. Not having seen the movie I can't say if I hold a candle to her behavior but I think I get where it's coming from; a crippling desire to have people unconditionally love you. It's a crazy thing some people do and some worse than others. I self medicate with schadenfreude so I probably don't hold a candle to this girl but I get pain and depression and the need to be loved and also apparently longwinded.

  7. And apparently a username that shows up as squigles. Call me The Black Fedora. I made the last comment

  8. Crypticpsych, it leads people to think of a happy-go-lucky rom-com Manic Pixie Dream Girl rather than the pathetic man/girl-babies we peter-pan types really are I guess.

    Also it helps to think of Jennifer's Body as a horror movie about being a teenage girl with incidental demons.

  9. Arquinsiel, yeah I can kind of see where you're coming from there.

    And as for Jennifer's Body...maybe I could buy that....but I have deep, deep problems with that movie....script...the fact that Jennifer's such a raging bitch to Needy apparently her whole life that I can't buy Needy still being friends with her at that point. Granted, I'm male, so maybe there's an element of it I don't know or understand, but the characters just didn't feel real to me.

  10. I'm also male. This pretty much gels with me experiences as a teenaged surrogate-gay-friend. Teenaged girls are the worst creatures in existances, and I'm glad it would now be creepy for me to spend any real time in their company so I can just be mean to them and make them go away.

    This may be an entirely different rant about the benefits of growing up either, whichever. The important thing is girls are icky.