The Sins of Young Adult: a Reflection from Steve

Are you looking for a movie to help you ponder the nature of sin during this season of Lent? If you especially want to consider the notion that the dark heart of sin is self-centeredness, then I highly recommend Young Adult. Charlize Theron gives a knockout performance as Mavis Gary. The trailer describes her as “the girl you hated in high school.” She is all of that and more. She is an appalling character and, as such, quite fascinating. In 2003, Theron was willing to let movie magic turn her ugly in order to play a serial killer. In Young Adult, she’s again willing to occasionally look awful (on the frequent mornings that she wakes up with a hangover), but she also shows that beauty on the outside might be a coverup for incredible ugliness underneath. Mavis is unhappy, but is determined not to stay that way. Unfortunately, her drive is fueled by a self-centeredness that is ultimately and ironically self-destructive. It also threatens the happiness of everyone with whom she comes in contact and blinds her to that reality. It doesn’t help that her drive is also fueled by alcohol.

As events unfold, we find out that Mavis is divorced. We’re never told what led to the divorce, but after meeting Mavis, it is not a surprising revelation. She is the author of young adult series that is waning in popularity. Her success seems to be due in part to the fact that, though she is now in her thirties, she never really grew up. She receives an email announcing the birth of her ex-boyfriend’s baby. She decides that she wants him back and she won’t let his happy marriage and new child stand in her way. In order to avoid any guilt feelings about what she is going to attempt, she convinces herself that he must be unhappy and that the only thing that could make him happy would be to get back together with her. How often are our sins built on a foundation of lies? Lies to others and lies to ourselves?

Mavis travels from Minneapolis to her despised hometown, the fictional Mercury, Minnesota, in order to seek out her prey. While waiting to get her hooks in Buddy (played nicely as a sweet guy by Patrick Wilson), she runs across another high school classmate, Matt. At first she doesn’t remember him, even though his locker was next to hers all through high school. She finally recalls that he is the “hate crime guy.” During high school a group of jocks severely beat him, leaving him with permanent damage to his legs and another part of his anatomy. In the character Matt, Patton Oswald provides the moral compass for the movie. Unfortunately, Mavis is not interested in following any moral compass that would get in the way of her plans. She is willing to hang out with Matt, though, because he also makes bourbon in his garage.

Young Adult reunites the creative team from Juno, writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman. This movie is much darker than Juno. It provides some laughs, but they tend to be of the uncomfortable variety. Both Cody and Reitman show their limitations. Although there are intriguing characters, the movie felt both overwritten and underwritten. At times it felt like the characters were delivering speeches to get the point across rather than engaging in natural conversation. This was unnecessary because the point was really clear enough. A surer hand by Reitman as director was needed to overcome the weakness of the writing. That being said, it is still well worth seeing.

SPOILER: I’m going to reflect a bit on the ending. If you haven’t yet seen the movie, I would suggest doing that first. Then come back to read this and see if you agree. Just as Mavis shows the destructive power of self-centered sin, the movie also shows the dangers of the communal nature of sin. As Mavis spirals towards self-destruction, Matt tries to save her from herself, but others sabotage that process. At one point Mavis tells her parents that she thinks she is an alcoholic. It seems that this is the first time she has dared to make that confession, maybe even to herself. Her mother laughs off the comment, thus shutting down a possible moment of healthy change for Mavis. That kind of enabling behavior presents its ugly head again at the end of the movie. At breakfast with Matt’s sister, after she has made a complete fool of herself, Mavis says she has to change. Will the movie end on a hopeful note after all? Nope. Matt’s sister also despises the town she lives in. She feels trapped there. She remembers how cool Mavis seemed in high school. She assumes Mavis has a good life now because she has moved away to be an author. She is as blind as Mavis has been. She convinces Mavis that she doesn’t have to change at all and thus Mavis drives away from Mercury still bound by her self-destructive, self-centered sin. If Matt’s sister had been willing and able to name that sin, she could have encouraged Mavis to seek the change that could bring life and happiness, but she wouldn’t or couldn’t. That, too, is the nature of sin.

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