Sympathy for the Mean Girl

This past summer, Cameron Diaz starred in the somewhat fun but undeniably fluffy not-quite black comedy Bad Teacher. The most inspired aspect of that movie wasn't the rather pedestrian plot or the by now thoroughly tired raunchy tastelessness of the tone and content (we've had about a thousand too many third-rate Something About Mary-style uninspired cinematic gross-out cringe-fests in the last decade or so). Instead, what stayed with the viewer was the character played by Diaz herself: an utterly unadmirable, shallow, narcissistic, bad-tempered anti-heroine-- someone we're given every reason to hate, but with whom we end up sympathizing in spite of ourselves, since her endlessly deplorable actions end up seeming rather pitiful, instead of vicious; and because the total lack of sentimental pretense that accompanies her absolute absence of scruples lends her an odd but undeniable charm.

Diaz's character is reincarnated in only slightly different form in Young Adult, a much deeper, much darker comedy-drama from Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman—the writer/director team which brought the sleeper hit Juno to the screen in 2007. Here, the thoroughly Americanized Afrikaner Charlize Theron plays the lead, author and divorcee Mavis Gary. Mavis, a once-beautiful blonde now approaching middle age, is a woman who still puts on the haughty airs of a duchess, yet who lives like an unreconstructed slob. Every night she passes out drunk in her semi-fancy Minneapolis high-rise apartment; she wakes up, hung over, sometimes next to last night's date, sometimes alone, always surrounded by filth she never bothers to clean up. She spends most of her day watching crap daytime TV, eating junk food, and occasionally attempting to write a new "young adult" book for a Gossip Girl-like franchise, which has her employed as a ghost writer.

Yet Mavis is roused from her listless day-to-day torpor when she learns that her teenage sweetheart Buddy Slade, now happily married, has just given birth to a baby daughter. Convincing herself that Buddy can't really be happy in that "hick town" she left behind, she returns to Mercury, Minnesota, with the mission to wrest him away from the family life in which she's convinced he must feel stifled and imprisoned. Once there, Mavis meets and forms an unlikely friendship with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a former "theater fag" whose locker was next to Mavis's when they attended high school together, but whose existence was barely ever noted by her during those four years. Matt, it turns out, was brutally attacked by a group of jocks during his senior year and suffered disfiguring, lifelong injuries from that assault. (Once she sees the cane he carries, Mavis remembers Matt as "that hate-crime guy"; Matt laconically replies that once the media found out that he wasn't actually gay, but rather "just a fat dork who got his ass kicked," they ceased to care about his case.)

After downing a few drinks, Mavis opens up to Matt about her real reasons for being back in town. Matt is appalled, but also somewhat amused, by Mavis's announced scheme to seduce her ex-beau away from his wife and daughter. He sees, just as we do, that in addition to being morally untenable, Mavis's despicable ambitions don't even have the virtue of being inspired by authentic love. Instead, it is for entirely ego-driven reasons that Mavis seeks to destroy a blissful and intact family; she wants to feel desirable and successful again. She is painfully aware that her body is aging and her sex appeal won't linger too much longer; once her attractiveness to the opposite sex is gone, she fears she'll be alone for good.

It goes without saying that Mavis's plans don't work, that she is rejected and humilated, and finally left with the unshakable conviction (for she is not stupid) that her soul is rotten to the core, that she is a reprehensible, manipulative, borderline-sociopathic, alchoholic whore, that everyone despises her—or worse, pities her—and that she desperately needs to change, if she hopes ever to be happy again. The fact that we, the audience, know she richly deserves this misery, yet at the same time find ourselves feeling sorry for her, is a testament to the even-handed (one may say "fair and balanced") tone maintained throughout the film. Indeed, screenwriter Cody and and director Reitman never pander to the audience or attempt to disingenuously blunt the thorny edges of their wretched protagonist's personality, yet like Oswalt's cranky but good-hearted cripple, we find her appealing just the same, because her obvious vulnerability grabs our hearts, even as we witness her numerous heartless escapades.

Or maybe it's because she's just so damn pretty. Really, would we men give an ugly girl so many chances to shape up and change her evil ways? But then nature, and our hormones, have us in a bind. As Matt tells Mavis in a moment of unvarnished honesty, "Guys like me are born to love women like you, no matter what."

To its credit, Young Adult resists the simple "feelgood" ending. Mavis's monstrous ego keeps reasserting itself, and as the credits roll, we see that she still would rather live in her narcissistic delusions than become a better person. Her final redemption, thus, remains in some doubt. We hope, for her sake and for the sake of other people in her life, that Mavis will finally become "better than this," as one character implores, but in the end that somewhat forlorn hope is all that we have.

We have seen many male characters of Mavis's stripe in recent years, but Young Adult may be a sign that popular culture is finally moving into a decidedly post-feminist age, wherein women's mistakes and misdeeds aren't merely seen as the unfortunate by-products of their suffering under a supposed "patriarchy," but rather as stemming from men's and women's shared flawed nature as all-too human beasts. Alt-rightists of all stripes should welcome this trend, as it showcases yet another significant chink in the armor of the once iron-clad PC-orthodoxy of the postmodern Zeitgeist. But all filmgoers of any ideology who appreciate the portrayal of uncompromising truths about the human condition should love Young Adult, a somtimes hilarous, often painful, but ultimately lovely cinematic gem.