"She was consumed by 3 simple things:
drink, despair, loneliness; and 2 more:
youth and beauty"
— Charles Bukowski (The People Look Like Flowers at Last)
Jason Reitman's Young Adult tells a story of Mavis Gary, a woman approaching 40 and a former prom queen. Mavis never grew up - she was always told how beautiful and amazing she was, which cause her to rely on her looks and never getting a chance to develop strong personality. When she was in high school she was popular and everyone always assumed she will achieve great things. She was dating Buddy Slade, it was a love of her life. In the beginning of the movie Mavis gets a message from Buddy's wife Beth informing her that she and Buddy just had a baby. Mavis is shown pulling her hair out for the first time when she looks at the picture - it's a compulsion, she does it every single time something reminds her of how wrong her life went and when everyone moved on, severed their connections to their teenage years, went on to do new things and started families, Mavis is just standing still, still trapped in her old mentality. She prints the photo of the baby and sits on the balcony looking at it. You can see curious things going through Mavis's face as she looks at it - nostalgia, jealousy and confusion. Mavis shakes the good emotions right off and comes up with a plan - she will go back to Mercury, her old town and win Buddy back. She is convincing herself that Buddy is trapped in his new life and he still loves her.
When Mavis returns to Mercury she doesn't call her parents - who live just in as big delusion as she does, having the photo of her wedding day on the wall, despite Mavis's marriage failed and she divorced and being completely oblivious to their daughter's problems. She doesn't have any friends in Mercury, because she never made an effort to made any. She just wants to take Buddy back and leave. While hanging out in the bar, she meets Matt - who went to the same high school with her. Matt is the person who has good personality, but he doesn't have playboy looks. He is also a cripple - when in high school a group of popular guys attacked him assuming he was gay. Although in high school Matt would probably never had courage to talk to Mavis he immediately sees she is disturbed and damaged when he meets her. So he talks to her, as to any other person and the two of them develop a bond, despite Mavis being completely selfish and inconsiderate of other people's feelings. In the scene in the bar we find out Mavis got an award in high school for best hair - considering her habit of pulling them it's one of the many clever ironies planted in the script.
Mavis is shown drinking a lot throughout the movie - she drinks, she gets completely wasted and she just collapses on bed. In one scene she says to her parents "I think I'm an alcoholic". Although her tone may suggest otherwise, she is being completely truthful at this moment. Her parents dismiss her words as a joke, but it's obvious she has a problem. She is constantly looking for a drink, she even crashes her car under the influence. When she has one of the two moments of lucidity in the movie she is in the bar watching Beth's band play a song - they start to perform a song that she thought was only hers and Buddy's. She looks at Buddy who clearly only cares about her wife at that point, she takes a shot and desperately tries to remind him of their past acting like a spoiled teenager. Later on in the movie she comes over to Buddy's and Beth's house for their baby's naming ceremony and gets drunk, after that when she sees pity in the eyes of everyone around her her delusion of Buddy's being unhappy and her being better than everyone dissolves. She comes over to Matt's place, the only person who showed her kindness during her stay in Mercury.
After her breakdown Mavis sleeps with Matt, then we see her waking up with him next to her - the shot which mirrors one from the first scenes of the film when Mavis sleeps with a guy she met in the bar and wakes up next to him. Mavis then goes into kitchen and talks with Matt's sister, who adores and admires her. Mavis tells her she has a lot of issues and for some reason it's very difficult for her to be happy. Matt's sister than starts telling her that Mavis is the only person in Mercury who escaped, who actually reached success - Mavis is a ghost writer for a popular Young Adult series - and that she wishes she was like her. Mavis spent the entire movie trying to achieve something because she thought she wanted it. But because of Matt's sister's words she gives that up, realizing she already has a lot. But there is a slight change in her - she offers coffee to Matt's sister, a prosaic act but somehow more than she did for any person previously in the movie. Then when she comes back to her hotel room she feels awful about abandoning her dog all by itself, starts to hug him and play with him, showing the real concern and affection for the very first time.
The root of Mavis's problems comes from one event - she was always a bit off and disturbed but then something happened. She had a perfect life - she had youth, her life ahead of her and Buddy. Then she got pregnant with him. If she had a baby she and Buddy would probably marry and start a family together. It's very possible that if that happened she would be like Beth is right now, having a baby would probably make her less selfish and ultimately brought her happiness. But she miscarried. Then her relationship with Buddy ended and she left Mercury, went on to marry some guy, which didn't work out. From that moment on everything seemed to collapse around her - she was never able to become good friends with anyone, she severed her connections with family, she became a writer, but she doesn't even get much credit for that and now her series is about the end. So she desperately, in her deranged mind, chooses the only option she thinks is left for her - taking her old life back. But she fails to notice, that everyone else already moved on.
Mavis, very fragile to begin with can't deal with bad things happening to her. She doesn't understand them. She thinks she is better than everyone around her and that she should always get what she wants. When things collapse, because well, life and the bad things that go with it happen,e she shuts down. She lives in her routine, alone in her apartment, with the dog that is probably her only companion. She walks around the stores, trying to listen in to the conversations of teenage girls, in order to incorporate their words into her series. The reason she is so good at writing it is because she is still teenager inside. Despite being a grown woman, she never changed inside. She still lives as she was a teenager, she doesn't take proper care of herself - constantly eating junk food, playing video games, drinking way too much. Then she wakes up broken and she needs her delusions and her messed up plan to give her some imaginary purpose. At many times in the movie when Mavis wakes up hangovered and dishevelled she reminded me of Naomi Watts's Diane from "Mulholland Drive" who also chose delusions and fantasies as a way to escape from her life, filled with disappointments and broken dreams and promises.
"Young Adult" shows two universal tragedies that you either already experienced in your life, will experience or at the very least you have a very good chance for it. First one is that we always want to come back to what used to be - to the time when we were at the brick of making a big decision, a choice that would change our lives and we chose one way. What if we did something else? How different would our life be now? Then there are those moments when we felt happy and we remember them fondly. For Mavis is her time in Mercury, when she was a teenage girl. She goes back to it, she thinks about it and she chooses to return to her home town for a walk down the memory lane. Unfortunately she shuts down the possibility of that trip to also bring back all the bad things that happened there and the realization that she will never have her old life back. It is impossible to turn back time and she doesn't seem to realize that - during the opening credits of the movie she keeps rewinding the tape Buddy once gave her in order to listen to the same song over and over again.
The second tragedy is that we always seem to want the things we don't have at the moment. The trick is that if we got what we wanted, pretty soon we would start to want something else. If Mavis got Buddy back she would probably be happy for a short while and then started to chase some new dream. Mavis has plenty - looks, wit, relatively good health, a job, an apartment. But she is going on a trip in order to have more. Because none of her new relationships work out she tries to go back to have the one she knew will work out, at least in her mind. She is so petrified of taking any risks and of facing more disappointments she convinces herself that this is the only way for her to find happiness. But the truth is that Mavis doesn't even have to change, she doesn't even have to realize that she has some deep issues. The only thing she needs to do is to realize that what works for others doesn't necessarily have to work for her. In the end of the movie she looks at her wrecked car, which is probably in a better condition than her mind is in that point of the story. And she finally sees that something has to change. She is ready to move on.
graphics by Sati