Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) needs to grow up, but she doesn’t realize it.
Mavis lives in a lonely high-rise apartment in Minneapolis, working as a ghostwriter on a young adult book series. She writes about Kendall, the most popular girl in high school. Even though we see glimpses of Mavis overhearing teenage conversations and incorporating it into her novel, she clearly draws the substantive material straight from her personal life.
One day Mavis receives a birth announcement email. It’s for the daughter of her high school beau, Buddy Slade and his wife Beth. After lamenting how sad Buddy must be, you know, being stuck back in their hometown for all these years, Mavis convinces herself she needs to return home to win Buddy back. She hits the road, playing “The Concept” by Teenage Fanclub off of a mixtape Buddy gave her in high school.
Along the way she runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), an old high school classmate who walks with a permanent and severe limp due to a vicious beating he received in high school.
Immediately Matt and Mavis make for a strange pairing: the nerd and the prom queen, essentially. They become quick friends, against all odds, as they drink together and she updates him on her plan to win Buddy back. It’s a plan, it should be said, that he thinks is just as insane as the viewer does.
Mavis constantly looks out of place in this town of chain restaurants and people who never left. She arranges to meet Buddy, telling him she’s in town for a big real estate deal and reminding him how busy she is. She suggests they meet at a bar that night. He says he can’t. She suggests the next night at 8:30. He says how about 6?
They meet at a sports bar that Matt coincidentally works at. Mavis and Buddy’s reunion doesn’t go all that well, and we can sense that Buddy is pulling away a little too. After all, it’s hard not to see how much of an effort Mavis is putting in, flirting with him, despite the talk of his wife and new baby.
Buddy invites Mavis to the same sports bar the following night to watch his wife’s band perform. At the performance, the band dedicates a song to Buddy, from Buddy’s wife Beth, and they play a cover of “The Concept,” and this horrifies Mavis who can feel her influence vanishing (though it really vanished long ago).
While Beth wants to stay out longer and Buddy is a little drunk, Mavis offers to drive him home. After getting him home, she kisses him before he pushes her away and heads inside. Most people would see this as a rejection but not Mavis. When she talks with Matt again, she brags that they made out. Matt, of course, does not believe her.
Finally, Mavis attends a naming ceremony for Buddy’s daughter at Buddy’s and Beth’s home. She really opens up to Buddy about how they are meant to be together, and Buddy, predictably, backs off. He says to her, “You’re better than this.”
Mavis, a well-established alcoholic, gets drunk and gets into an altercation with Beth.
With what seems like the whole town at the event, Mavis breaks down and screams at everyone. She screams about how she hates this town and about how this ceremony could’ve been hers. This is when she reveals that she had a miscarriage at age 20 and that she and Buddy had planned on raising the child. Mavis storms off after telling Buddy she came back to town for him.
That night Mavis, crying, shows up at Matt’s house, and they sleep together. The next morning she wakes up with his arm slung over chest. She pushes him aside and gets out of bed.
In the kitchen she sits down with Matt’s sister, Sandra, who also went to high school with them and who idolizes Mavis. Sandra tells Mavis she is just the best and that she’s better than everyone. Whereas Mavis was a moment before on the verge of an emotional breakthrough about not being happy, she is pushed back into her thinking at the beginning of the film: She’s better and more important than everyone because they want to be just like her.
Sandra asks to come with Mavis to Minneapolis, but Mavis says “you’re good here” in a condescending way. With that, Mavis heads back to Minneapolis, reinvigorated but having not grown one bit.
One of the first shots of Young Adult has the camera pan slowly up a high rise apartment in which lives Mavis. We get the sense that way up there in that building she is very isolated and detached from the world. This is further emphasized as we glimpse her only in her apartment. She spends time drunk, drinking Diet Coke, watching tv, trying to write, and barely caring for her dog.
It’s not until she gets the birth announcement from Buddy that Mavis leaves the apartment, and she does so only to meet with a friend to whom she rants about how bad her hometown is. Her friend responds dryly and sarcastically, “it’s great you got out of there.”
So we know immediately that Mavis is not someone we aspire to be. She’s stuck in the past because to her it was so great. She later remarks that she wants to win Buddy back because she was at her best when she was with him, despite this being in high school and a couple years after. She hasn’t progressed beyond 18.
You can draw a parallel between her and Matt, but for different reasons. Matt was bullied and beat up in high school, and he has to forever live with the scars of that time of his life. Though he seems well-adjusted to adult life, Matt still lives in the room of a teenager, with painted action figures adorning the walls. In some ways he hasn’t moved on past high school because it was so bad to him and because people like Mavis won’t let him. When Mavis first runs into Matt, she doesn’t remember him until she remembers that he was the kid who got beat up for being gay when, in reality, he was not gay.
One of the more interesting moments in this movie was when we learn that Mavis was once married and now divorced. She seems like the type of character who could never get married because that requires, generally speaking, a certain degree of compromising.
Mavis doesn’t compromise. She’s self-centered, and she thinks she’s better than everyone. She isolates herself and pushes people away. In one scene she is shopping for clothing, and she tells a woman who works at the store that she’s looking for something to impress her old flame. The woman is very helpful until Mavis mentions that her “old flame” has a wife. The woman than seems genuinely disturbed and her voice cracks when she calls for someone else to help Mavis.
It’s hard to empathize with Mavis. She doesn’t have any close friends, and even Matt is only really a friend because he’s willing to listen and get drunk with her.
The closest we get to feeling for Mavis is the reveal that she had a miscarriage. At the same time, this doesn’t feel like something that might’ve deeply hurt her as it would a healthy person, but rather Mavis uses it as a way to claim her territory. She thinks she has a right to Buddy because she was there first.
When Mavis first decides to return home from Minneapolis, she is lying in bed with a one night stand, his arm draped over her chest as he sleeps. She quietly leaves her apartment and thus leaves him behind. In the two shots of the film this man is in, we never see his face because he doesn’t matter.
At the end of the film when Mavis leaves Matt behind, they are in the same position: Mavis lying awake in bed with Matt asleep, his arm draped over her chest. Mavis gets up and leaves town after the brief conversation with Sandra.
So even with the person she develops the deepest connection with, Mavis just gets up and leaves with no parting words. She treats him like he doesn’t matter, because, well he doesn’t matter… to her.
In Mavis’ final conversation with Sandra, Mavis comments that the people in this small town “don’t care that their lives don’t matter.” Sandra says, “that’s because they don’t.”
So Mavis Gary hits the road and leaves the adults behind.