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This movie manipulates the viewer, director Jason Reitman happily tells Andrew L. Urban, and he can’t think of anyone better to play Mavis than Charlize Theron.

When Charlize Theron came up to director Jason Reitman at the Oscars a couple of years ago and said she’d like to work with him, Reitman was “slightly taken aback, terrified and intimated – but not unhappy.” Fate must have heard the exchange because not long afterwards, Diablo Cody sent her new script, Young Adult, to Reitman. 

The storyline merely hints at the layers beneath. Shortly after her divorce, Mavis Gary (Theron), a writer of teen literature, returns to her small hometown in Minneapolis to revisit her glory days and attempt to reclaim her happily married high school sweetheart Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). When returning home and reclaiming Buddy proves more difficult than she thought, Mavis forms an unusual bond with a former classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt) who has demons and challenges of his own.

"an incredibly brave, and unflinching actress with endless talent"

“I couldn’t think of anyone better to play Mavis than Charlize,” says Reitman on the phone from the Paramount offices in Los Angeles. “She’s an incredibly brave, and unflinching actress with endless talent. There’s no reason to make this film unless it’s heartbreakingly real.”

Reitman had hardly thought the thought when he bumped into Theron again – in a West Hollywood restaurant. “I told her I found a script that could put us together and sent it over to her.”

Now it was Theron’s turn to be intimidated. The script calls for a gutsy performance in which the character of Mavis keeps banging into the brick walls of her personality. She’s a damaged and needy young woman who simply can’t change. 

“It was her first role in three years,” says Reitman, “so it really took some courage to jump in at the deep end; it shows how unflinching she is. Once she digested the script, she was into it. She immediately identified the character.” 

The title and the marketing materials suggest this might be a fun movie about an immature young woman; a sort of ‘bad girl gets up nose’. But audiences are in for a surprise. As Reitman says, “This movie manipulates the viewer. You think you’re going to see one thing but you see something else.” It’s a deliberate ploy to divide the audience into those that go with the filmmaker – and those that don’t. 

As A. O. Scott of the New York Times puts it, the film “shrouds its brilliant, brave and breathtakingly cynical heart in the superficial blandness of commercial comedy.”

“All four of my movies are divisive,” says Reitman with something like pride. “Hopefully that surprise is a punch in the gut and prompts some introspection…”

"the film’s dark edges"

All well and good, but the film’s dark edges and treatment of Mavis is not easy to swallow in Hollywood studio land. “Yes, you’re right, it was brave of the studio. I was very lucky,” says Reitman quickly. “I was most fortunate how Paramount stepped up to support this movie. And I am also lucky that the reaction to it is strong.”

Diablo Cody’s script was pretty well complete and beautifully formed when she delivered it to Reitman. “She writes infuriatingly well,” he says through gritted teeth, but with evident admiration. 

For Cody, the idea was planted when she read an amazing news story about a woman who had gone after her high school sweetheart years later - and as she explains in the notes to the film, “I thought to myself, that’s pretty rich. What if there was this woman, this character who is kind of emotionally immature and the happiest she’s ever been in her life was high school? What if she’s still kind of stunted and thinks that the only way she can reclaim that happiness is to literally go back and find the man who made her happy then? Then I just started writing.”

"very specific"

Reitman doesn’t do run throughs or rehearsals. “We had a table read around my dining room table, and we talked about the characters and what we wanted the audience to feel.” This latter issue was crucial to Reitman’s whole approach to directing the film. He was very specific about what he wanted us to feel at various moments – indeed, all through the film.

It was for that table read that he invited his friend Patton Oswalt to read the part of Matt, the physically and emotionally damaged friend whose empathy draws them together.

“As soon as we did that table read I felt great about Charlize – she had lost her fear of it and absolutely nailed the character. So did Patton. There was great chemistry right there. We wanted to say ‘these two should be dating’. They made me better understand the film as a doomed romance …”

It turned out to “the best working relationship” with Theron, says Reitman. “She is a delight; trusting, confident, funny …”

Published January 26, 2012

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Jason Reitman

Dir: Jason Reitman;
Scr: Diablo Cody

Australian release: January 19, 2012


Charlize Theron in Young Adult

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