Characters reminisce about the ’90s, wear Pixies T-shirts, and maintain collections of hand-painted action figures in Young Adult, all in line with what viewers might expect from a film that reunites Juno’s writer and director, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman. What’s different this time around? They’re on the sidelines, gazing with bewilderment, dislike, and/or awe at their heroine, played by Charlize Theron as the type of girl who once upon a time walked all over them. Though her character’s high-school glory days are almost two decades behind her, she’s dredged them up with an unstable determination that attests to the years of disappointment that followed them. It’s an empathetic but bravely brittle portrait of an aging queen bee that showcases a nuanced performance from Theron as a woman too used to being admired to admit how lonely and desperate she’s become.
Theron heads back to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota to liberate her teenage flame (Patrick Wilson) from what she’s sure is an unhappy marriage—never mind that he doesn’t seem to think so, and that he’s a devoted new father. The ghostwriter of a once-successful YA series called Waverly Prep, Theron is now divorced and an alcoholic, and the film slowly layers on evidence of how close she is to a mental breakdown. Tromping through town on spike heels, she takes up with an old bullied classmate (a very good Patton Oswalt) she barely remembers and doesn’t treat much better as a grown-up; when he tells her “guys like me are born loving women like you,” it’s with gloriously complicated ruefulness and self-mockery.
Playing a character who crawls out of bed a wreck every morning and shellacs herself with salon treatments and makeup so she’ll look presentable by evening, Theron conveys both the unthinking entitlement of the (once-) adored and a quavering vulnerability all too evident underneath. It’s an impressive performance that’s rarely showy, and the restrained direction and screenplay offer it support, at least until a rushed final act that places a screaming showdown and recovery too close together. But Reitman lets the pop-culture references (oh hi, 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up”) accessorize the story rather than guide it, and in its uncompromising treatment of a character who’s troubled but also a stone-cold bitch, Young Adult offers compassion for rather than revenge on the “psycho prom queen” who has nothing left in life but a warped mix-tape from an ex who moved on long ago.