Ebertfest 2014: Young Adult (2011)

Thursday night’s main event was a screening of Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt. It was one of my favorite films of 2011, and certainly represents Charlize Theron’s best work. Never mind Monster. Pop in Young Adult. There are so many things I flat out LOVE about this film, and I’ve been meaning to write it up in full. I love how unforgiving it is, I love how ambiguous, I love how it ends. I love that it denies catharsis, because catharsis, frankly, is not possible for someone like Mavis Gary (Theron). I write a lot about psychopaths here, or sociopaths, no difference, especially as they are represented onscreen. Theron is now in the pantheon of what I call great “blank face” acting. The script is hilarious. I found Juno to be jarringly twee, with all the characters speaking in the same voice. Not here. It’s a brilliant portrait of a woman who peaked when she was 17 and cannot, WILL. NOT., get over it.


Something is WRONG with her. And Theron fearlessly plays that. It’s also fascinating because it is an example of an actress using her beauty to nefarious/manipulative ends. It’s a film that doesn’t DENY her gorgeousness. It’s a film that comments on it, examines it, peels it apart. Many beautiful actresses refuse to participate fully in such a process, and their work suffers for it. Theron faces it head on.

Patton Oswalt is incredible in the role of Matt, a guy who went to high school with Mavis and became briefly famous in high school as the “hate crime guy,” when bullies beat him to a pulp because they thought he was gay (he’s not). So he doesn’t even get to have the glory of being a proper victim. Once it came out he wasn’t gay, his whole “hate crime” became just another example of a fat kid getting picked on. No sympathy there. However, the bullies beat him so badly that they crushed his legs (he will be forever lame), and also smashed their iron crowbars into his penis, injuring THAT forever. Matt lives with his sister, and works in a local bar, and spends his off-hours brewing liquor in his own distillery and putting together action figures. Mavis and he start up a friendship, based on alcohol and contempt for other people. But it quickly becomes apparent to Matt that Mavis is … off. At one point, she says something so crazy, that he starts laughing, saying, “You … are mentally ILL.”

I talked to a couple of other critics afterwards, and both of them had serious issues with the movie. One even said she “hated” it. Unfortunately, it was during our rushed dinner break so I didn’t get a chance to ask her to elaborate. I was interested to hear where she was coming from, because I love this movie fiercely. I love it because it really goes the distance with Mavis. A lesser film, a more conventional film, would have made her come to realize, over the course of the film, that she was living in the past, that she needed to invest in her present and future, that she actually could change her ways and find some happiness. Blah. Boring. We’ve seen it all before. And there actually are people who can’t change, who won’t change. They’re often awful people, but they do exist. Young Adult is hilarious, but it has the courage of its convictions, when it comes to Mavis, and so does Theron. She has barely one “likable” moment in the entire film. (She is outrageously funny, but mainly because of how awful she is.) There are details in the performance, deep undercurrents that come from her total and utter lack of self-awareness. She pulls her hair out of her head when she’s feeling anxious. It’s unconscious on her part. She drinks so much she passes out face-down, fully clothed, in her bed night after night. She swills down Coke out of the bottle first thing upon arising. She is promiscuous and contemptuous about the guys she takes home. She is the ghost writer of a popular Young Adult series, about high school. She lives in Minneapolis and has contempt for anyone who still lives in the small town where she grew up. She is better than them. This isn’t a coverup or a defense mechanism: she ACTUALLY feels she is better than them.

Yes, all of this is a pretty tough pill to swallow. But I loved it for its unblinking look at a woman who has missed the point of life, due to the fact that some essential quality has been left out of her nature, or something was not encouraged in her early on as a kid. We don’t know what it is. Maybe she was spoiled. Maybe her parents gave her her own way too much. (Jill Eikenberry is wonderful as Mavis’ mother. She only has one scene but it speaks VOLUMES.) Maybe her social life in high school was so intense that it left no time for reflection or character development. Who knows. We only see the result, which is a woman who is unable to connect to others.

It was one of my favorite films of that year. Definitely in my Top 10.

Patton Oswalt was there as a guest, and, of course, presented with a golden thumb by Chaz. He made a great speech beforehand about Roger Ebert. Roger Ebert’s books and reviews were Oswalt’s way “out of the suburbs”. Because of Roger Ebert, Oswalt would go to a local Blockbuster as a teen and think, “What the hell, sure, I’ll rent Floating Weeds.” Chaz and Roger had been trying to get Patton Oswalt to attend Ebertfest for a couple of years. Roger Ebert had loved Big Fan, and also loved loved Young Adult, and had nice words in particular for Oswalt, writing, “Patton Oswalt is, in a way, the key to the film’s success.” Oswalt joked about how mind-blowing it was to him to be in a movie that “Roger Ebert actually liked.” “You know, I wasn’t in Deuce Bigelow 2.” He said it was a huge honor to be there for the festival. He was great. Hilarious and heartfelt.


Rogerebert.com contributor and veteran USA Today journalist Susan Wloszczyna and Ain’t It Cool’s Steve Prokopy ran the discussion following the film, which was, not surprising, rowdy and hilarious. (Sam Fragoso wrote it up for Rogerebert.com. Susan said that in the scene where we see Matt in his garage, hovered over his distillery, his character reminded her of “an Orc.” Oswalt exclaimed, “An ORC???” Susan said, “I mean it as a compliment.”

Patton Oswalt knew going in to Young Adult that he had to bring his “A game”, working with someone like Charlize Theron. He couldn’t just “find the character” while filming, he couldn’t just “see what happened” when the camera was rolling. He needed to prepare. He couldn’t fall back on “schtick” – that’s what a lot of comedians do when they are cast out of their comfort zone. So he hired an acting coach, Nancy Banks (he sang her praises), in order to get ready to do the role. She worked with him privately for a couple of months, working with the script, doing acting exercises/script analysis with him, and he was so happy, in the end, that he had taken the time to do that. He said he walked into filming with much more confidence, after working with Banks. Smart actor. And he continues to work with her.

A couple of funny quotes from him that I wrote down from the QA:

“I gained 40 pounds for this role 20 years before Diablo Cody wrote the script.”

On working with Charlize Theron, he said she was such a pro that it was almost intimidating. In “real life”, she is warm and friendly and funny, but the second the cameras started rolling, she zapped into Mavis with instant focus. He was so impressed by that, by her skill at being able to go between those two very different realities.

And, of course, he has a sex scene with her. He joked, about his insecurities, “I can’t get naked with Paul Giamatti or John Goodman. I have to get naked with this Nexus Android 6.” He said that his torso looked like “Walter Matthau.”

I loved what he said about Theron’s performance: how during the day she seems reduced, shrunken, and at night, she pops into life, the makeup, the clothes, the vibe. He said, insightfully, “In many ways, it is an amazing portrait of an alcoholic.” It really is.

“I know people like Mavis,” said Oswalt. “They do exist.”

He talked about the theme of the film, of the glorification of your younger self, of high school, or of whenever it was that you feel you were at your highest level. (He joked, “I peaked at age 6.”) He said, though, that as you get older, you start to realize that a lot of good things come with having more miles on you. He said, as though talking to his 20-year-old self: “Me and my 40-year-old body are gonna have some Scotch that you can’t afford.”

What did he learn about acting from working his acting coach? It was simple: “Prepare, prepare, prepare.”

He was awesome, he handled the questions well (one guy stood up and said, “Hello, Patton” into the mike, and the guy sounded so self-important and like he was about to start speaking for a long long time, you could feel it – and Patton said, “Uh-oh. Here comes the manifesto.” One guy invited him out for drinks afterwards so they could talk further, and Patton said, fondly, “I’ve found my Travis Bickle.”

The guy’s a pro, handling large crowds of people. He also mentioned that his time as a standup really helped him with getting into this more dramatic role in Young Adult. The sheer TRAINING that experience like that provides was just grist for the mill.

It was a really fun night. So glad he was in attendance.

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4 Responses to Ebertfest 2014: Young Adult (2011)

  1. par says:

    thanks for this (so jealous) – my favourite film of 2011

  2. jakey says:

    I loved this write-up! My family and I saw “Young Adult” for our annual Christmas movie and were bummed when Charlize didn’t get an Oscar nom.

    They only filmed a few exteriors here in Minneapolis, but there is something *so* Minnesota about this movie that Diablo Cody was able to deftly pinpoint. I remember the A.V. club asking her why she didn’t set the film in Manhattan, and she said that a girl making it big in NYC wasn’t as relatable as somebody leaving small-town Minnesota to big-time Minneapolis. I’ve spent almost my entire life in Minneapolis, but I was still able to understand that viewpoint.

  3. sheila says:

    Jakey – I love that this movie is something you watch as a Christmas movie. Awesome!!

    I agree – about the small-town vibe, and that it wasn’t Manhattan. I have a feeling Mavis would be lost in Manhattan.

    And totally agree that she should have been nominated for an Oscar. It’s a hell of an acting job. LOVE it.

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