Sunday, March 25, 2012

Winter Webby Winner: Young Adult: Reflecting the Darkness of Contemporary American Society

Perhaps, no film has been as polarizing as 2011’s Young Adult, which was just released on DVD this Tuesday.

Just take a look at the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page. While 84 percent of top critics gave Young Adult a positive review (with many publications like Time Magazine and The New York Times even choosing to rank it among the year’s best), only 58 percent of the site’s users rated the film favorably, with the majority deeming it “rotten.” The same trend can be seen on Redbox, where users have given the film an average rating of 2.0 stars out of 5. This is particularly slighting given that Redbox users, wanting to feel good about their rental decisions, often tend to be lenient with their grades, which has led to an overall inflation of ratings on the site. For instance, even Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill, which has been widely panned as the worst movie of 2011, has a 2.5 average rating

So how can a film that is praised as “brilliant, brave and breathtakingly cynical” by The New York Times also be widely panned by the general public? First, let's see why Redbox users disliked the film by looking at a sample of their reviews:

What’s important to note is that none of these users mention any the film’s aesthetic features in their critiques, instead choosing to attack the emotional reaction the film provoked. Two words kept on returning in these reviews, “dark” and “depressing.” This is somewhat surprising given the premise of the film: teen fiction writer Marvis Garvey (played by Academy Award winner Charlize Theron) decides to make a visit back to her home in small-town Minnesota in hopes of winning back her high school flame Buddy (Patrick Wilson) even though he is happily married and with child. This plotline would seem to be the source of great comedy, and harkens back to earlier films like Doc Hollywood and even Cars, where an urban hotshot has to be humbled by the charms of a small town community in order to find fulfillment. Except Garvey is never humbled. At the end of this film, Garvey decides to go back to her apartment city and ends up exactly in the same position she began. Literally and symbolically. She gains no epiphany, receives no enlightenment, and exhibits no change of character. She never escapes being the "psychotic prom queen bitch," as one character puts it.

That is what audience members seem to have taken issue with: the fact that screenwriter Diablo Cody (2007’s Juno) has unapologetically refused to give us a normal Hollywood ending. Viewers believe that since Garvey does not atone for her sins by the end of the movie, her character has no arc, and the film is an incomplete work. There are many threads on IMDb slamming Young Adult for exactly this reason:

And perhaps my personal favorite...

Just because a character begins and ends at the same place does not mean that nothing has happened in between.Young Adult (while filled with many laugh-out-loud moments and witty lines) is, when it really comes down to it, a tragedy. It’s the tragedy of a woman who desperately needs to change, but finds herself unable to. The filmmakers ironically wink to this idea by choosing to have Diana Ross’ “When We Grow Up” (below) play over the closing credits, which prominently includes the line, “We don't have to change at all.” The audience can’t help but laugh because we, as objective observers, know that Garvey positively has to. She can’t continue her heavy drinking, or her obsession with her physical appearance, or her blatant disregard for others' well-being. She has emotional problems that must be dealt with.

The ending, however, implicates contemporary society for enabling Garvey to continue avoiding her deep-rooted problems, which include alcoholism, depression, and possibly even autism. Toward the end of the film, Garvey learns the true reason why Buddy has been hanging out with her throughout the entire film: it was not because he had feelings for her, but because his wife, who is a special ed teacher, believed that she may have a mental sickness and did not want her to be alone. Absolutely humiliated in a public setting, Garvey can no longer ignore her problems, and comes to the realization the following morning that she "need[s] to change.” She is prevented from making such change, however, when one of her high school classmates, Sandra, badmouths Buddy’s wife with her and convinces her that she is perfect the way she is in order to appease Garvey.

SANDRA: Everyone here is fat and dumb.

MAVIS: Don’t say that….Do you really think so?

SANDRA Yes. Everyone wishes they could be like you. You know, living in the city, famous, and beautiful and all that.

MAVIS: I’m not famous.

SANDRA: Well, you know, special... or whatever. Some days, during a slow shift, I’ll just think about you living in your cool apartment... Going out and stuff... it seems really nice.

It is hard to ignore the suggestion that we, the American public, are Sandra. After all, who has not similarly accidentally said something negative toward an acquaintance or contrary to our beliefs, in order to seek approval from someone else? The filmmakers are arguing that people like Garvey get power not from their own doing, but simply because we have given it to them. A larger social commentary seems to be made as well. Throughout the film, Garvey is shown watching shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Kendra. In this way, Garvey almost becomes our surrogate for them, opening up new interpretations of the film. Do we treat our reality TV stars the same way Sandra does to Garvey? The American public often finds reality stars' behavior repulsive, but then, we continue tuning into their shows, buying their products, and dreaming that we had their lifestyle. Does our concept of fame prevent individuals from changing even when they know they must?

This is probably why viewers have called the film “dark” and “depressing.” Young Adult is not merely an indictment of one individual, Garvey, but instead of everyone watching. And that’s why the film’s genius. It reflects the darkness of contemporary American culture, and asks not only Garvey, but us to change as well.

- By Kurt C.

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