Dec. 8, 2011 at 10:46 AM ET
The band Bowling for Soup has a great song: "High School Never Ends." And in some ways, that's true. Everyone, it seems, remembers who they were in high school, and they remember who you were, too.
In "Young Adult," Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, who writes books about prep-school love and can't get her own high-school beau out of her mind, even two decades after graduation.
Mavis writes from her home, a messy cave in downtown Minneapolis. Her name doesn't even appear on her books, since she's just ghostwriting a successful teen series (think "Sweet Valley High," the movie version of which screenwriter Diablo Cody tackles next).
Mavis doesn't have the success she felt she deserved, so when she is forwarded a baby announcement sent by her happily married high-school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), she suddenly decides to go back to her lakeside hometown and win him back. Not win him, really. Seize him, like a high-school prom queen setting out to snatch the quarterback away from a plain Jane.
Here's where the film starts to suspend disbelief. Even for someone as overtly self-confident and delusional as Mavis, it seems a leap to assume he will leave his wife and newborn to reunite with an old flame.
Everyone but Mavis gets that, including former classmate Matt (a wonderful Patton Oswalt). Matt and Mavis weren't friends in high school -- she won Best Hair, he was horribly beaten by classmates who thought he was gay, in a crippling crime that the film takes far too lightly. Matt tries to tell her to leave Buddy alone, but Mavis is a deranged force of nature at this point. Events build up to an uncomfortable confrontation between Mavis and Buddy's wife ("Twilight" coven mom Elisabeth Reaser).
Buddy's a nice guy and all, but it's Mavis and Matt's odd friendship that makes for a highlight of the film. He's kind and blunt ("I'm a fat geek, I know what a zombie is," he tells her at one point) and she's scary, with a hint underneath of the magnetism that she must have shown in school.
Cody gets the pop-culture details exactly right, as always -- Bluefly.com shopping web pages are hidden behind Mavis' book-in-progress, she swigs Diet Coke from a two-liter bottle, Teenage Fanclub's "The Concept" plays on her teenage mix tape, "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" is always on TV.
Theron isn't afraid to make Mavis unlikable but somehow seems to keep her from being intolerable. You want to see what she'll do next, even during the excruciating party confrontation. The audience knows that you can't go home again, but watching Mavis try is fascinating.