05 February 2012

Forever Young

I think I've found a new entry in my unintentional quest to find the worst cinema screen in London and--shocker--it isn't an Odeon. I have tended to avoid the Empire in Leicester Square but mainly because of the ticket prices, but as it was the only cinema showing Young Adult in the West End this weekend, I decided to make an exception. The ticket turned out to be only £9.95 (a bargain in central London) but the screen was terrible: it was barely bigger than a decent-sized living room and because the website wouldn't let me book just one ticket in the row I chose (even though the rows have odd numbers), I had to queue at the cinema, by which time only the front row was left. And the front row was no more than 1.5 m away from the screen; if my legs were slightly longer, I could have kicked the screen, so avoid screen 9 at the Empire unless you're in the back row. It made for uncomfortable viewing, that's for sure.

As did Young Adult itself. Penned by Diablo Cody of Juno fame, Young Adult tells the story of Mavis (Charlize Theron), the beautiful, thirty-something ghost writer of a popular series of young adult fiction called Waverly Place, which sounds not unlike the Sweet Valley High books I used to read and which Cody is currently adapting for the big screen. Mavis is also a lot like what SVH's Jessica Wakefield would be like in her thirties: beautiful and with a fun job and nice apartment but ultimately, bitter, immature and unfulfilled.

Indeed, the plot of Young Adult also resembles the plot of most SVH books: selfish, immature protagonist has a bad idea; acts on it, disregarding common sense and the feelings of others; and eventually realises how horrible she is and thinks she ought to change (until the next episode). When Mavis finds out her high-school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) has just had a baby with his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), she decides that the best way to achieve satisfaction in her life of one-night stands, Hello Kitty t-shirts and KFC dinners is for her to go back from the big city (Minneapolis) to the small town where she grew up and where Buddy and Beth still live, and to try to win him back.

Mavis meets up with Buddy several times and tries to seduce her way back into his life, convinced he is "trapped" and "miserable," even though he and Beth seem happy and even though the latter does her best to make Mavis feel welcome, admiring her success in the big city. She wears small-town-inappropriate clothes to low-key events and generally makes a fool of herself. It is pretty awkward. Meanwhile, she is trying to finish her latest YA novel but is often distracted and has to go to KFC or the mall to eavesdrop on real teenagers and "borrow" their dialogue.

Soon after she arrives, she bumps into Matt (Patton Oswalt), another guy who attended her high school who she barely remembers until she sees his cane--he was attacked and beaten by a group of popular guys and has been crippled. Matt thinks Mavis's plan is a bad idea and tries to discourage her but strangely, they start to become friends. Matt too seems like he's not quite ready to grow up, still living in his sister's basement, brewing booze and painting model figurines, and still defining himself by the event in high school that damaged him so badly.

Young Adult is less funny and a lot less sweet than Juno (not that Juno is that sweet). Theron's Mavis is highly unlikable and even though we don't see very much of Buddy or Beth, they are much more sympathetic characters. Matt is more ambiguous--although he tries to make Mavis do the right thing, he clearly has issues of his own. Oswalt and Theron make a very odd pair visually but the friendship of their characters works well and brings a more human side to Mavis. Whether Mavis has really learnt anything by the end of the film remains unclear, although we are probably meant to infer from the voice-over of the last chapter of her YA book what she will decide to do. At times, rather like Mavis's life, Young Adult felt a little shallow but Theron is really good and very funny and the script is sharp, dark and fast-paced. It will probably be a good warm-up for the upcoming Sweet Valley High movie (which will, apparently, be a musical...).

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