It seems more likely that Michael Fassbender will win a lot of awards this winter for his tortured performance as a sex addict in Shame than that Charlize Theron will take home hardware for her performance as a toxic, alcoholic author of YA literature who pursues a doomed romantic quest in Young Adult. That’s too bad. Theron and costar Patton Oswalt are remarkable in this acid little comedy, a reteaming of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman that sloughs off all the irritating tics of their previous collaboration in Juno and leaves behind something sleek and venomous. And both Shame and Young Adult are critiques of highly gendered fantasies: for Shame, the idea that unlimited access to sex is paradise, and for Young Adult, the idea that a sticky-sweet fantasy of true love and destiny is the surest path to happiness.
Even before she humiliates herself trying to win back her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson), Mavis Gary (Theron) is in a bad place. She’s parlayed her life experience as the kind of girl who wins best hair in her high school yearbook into a job ghostwriting a YA franchise with a star character who says things like “I’m the hottest girl in the world.” But that golden sheen isn’t preventing the series from coming to an end. Mavis wakes up from alcoholic stupors in a filthy, cluttered apartment in a drab Minneapolis apartment building, does desultory Wii Fit workouts, and shows occasional affection to her dog, named Dolce. When a high school friend who’s also made it to the big city tells Mavis, “We’re lucky we got out. We have lives,” it sounds less like an affirmation and more like a sick joke.
But it’s not until Mavis, spurred on by the announcement that Buddy and his wife have had their first child, decides to go back home, win Buddy back, and in doing so, return to the last time she felt worth anything, that things really get grim. There’s a tooth-rotting sweetness to Mavis’s conviction that she and Buddy are destined to be together. “Love conquers all. Have you not seen The Graduate? Or, like, anything?” Mavis snaps at a doubter. Buddy uneasily reconnects with Mavis, who shows up in revealing designer clothes to suburban bars and fakes an affinity for his child in an effort to get close to him. “You sound like one of your crazy characters,” he jokes at one point, trying to turn her delusions and stasis into good things. “It’s like the rest of us changed. You just got lucky.” But when she tells him tipsily, “These past few days have been some of the best of my life.” He’s unnerved. “They have?” he asks her. It’s a truly awful prospect. There’s nothing wrong with Mavis incorporating snips of overheard conversation into her novels to give voice to her teenage characters. But mistaking coincidence for profound connection and willfully misreading signals is a recipe for misery.
It would be easy for Young Adult to either punish Mavis, turning her into someone who deserves her despair, or to redeem her, giving her opportunities to learn and rewarding her for succeeding. The movie walks a very fine line between those options, producing something vastly more interesting in the process: a story about the inability of people to see each other and themselves clearly and with humanity. Mavis’s parents deflect her when she tells them bluntly she believes she might be an alcoholic. The younger sister of Matt (a marvelous Oswalt), Mavis’s one-time locker-mate, sees Mavis as extraordinary and worldly even when she’s marinating in shame. Matt, who walks with crutches after a violent attack in high school almost crippled him, isn’t much more satisfied with his life than Mavis is with hers. But at least he knows the reasons for his dissatisfaction. Matt is the only person who believes Mavis when she tells him, “I’m crazy. And no one loves me.” And because of that he’s the only person who can actually engage with Mavis’s self-image dysmorphia and neediness, but also with her cruelty and dismissiveness to other people. “Guys like me were born loving women like you,” he tells her, in desire and regret.
It’s both their deconstructions of fantasies, and their engagements with self-delusion that make Shame and Young Adult so similar, and so similarly powerful. Mavis’s messy life is the inverse of Brandon’s meticulously curated apartment and blank relationships in Shame. Mavis’s visits to the salon where she’s buffed, painted, peeled and steamed into perfection are as much of a ritual as Brandon’s searches for sexual gratification, prospect scouting in the morning, pornography over takeout in the evening, a partner (or several) before bed. What Mavis wants is a partner who will reset her life, sweeping away the clutter and healing up the raw patch on her scalp where she’s picked away that prize-winning hair. Brandon’s controlled facade are a way of disguising his constant hunt for sexual gratification. But his brief pursuit of a woman from his office suggests that Brandon would like to find a compromise between that rigidly bland facade and the boundary-shattering chaos his sister reintroduces into his life when she crashes with him in New York. Mavis is seeking perfection. Brandon can’t even imagine it. Young Adult is kinder to its main character than Shame, but only marginally.
Shame leaves Brandon in a place where he is cleansed but not, perhaps, recovered. In an escalating series of events, he has consigned the paraphernalia of his sex life to the trash (not that it keeps him from going on the prowl again), been washed in his sister’s blood, and finally soaked in the rain. Baptism may be transformative, but it’s only what comes after that lets us know if it actually changed a man. Young Adult takes a gentler approach to dismantle the lies that Mavis has told herself, and that, the movie suggests, are literally making her ill by providing a motivation for her alcoholism. When Matt, a classmate Mavis ignored throughout high school except to know that he was a victim of a brutal hate crime, asks her why she remains obsessed with Buddy, she tells Matt, “He’s a good man. He’s kind.” “Are other men not kind?” Matt prods her gently, eliciting the real answer: “He knew me when I was at my best.” Mavis isn’t really a believer in true love, she’s Miss Havisham in designer pumps, dust and veils replaced by sticky makeup cases and a pile of dog food tins. She may survive one delusion in this movie. And a compromised recovery from her fantasies may be better than drinking herself to death. In the world of Young Adult, that’s what passes for victory.