When we first meet Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) in Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s pulsating and emotionally electric Young Adult, she is less Queen Nee and more non-girl, no different than the kind of nebulous and innocuous highschooler who spends four years surreptitiously padding through the halls, a ghost, unseen and unnoticed by everyone around her. When she sends you a Facebook friend request a decade later, you question: why it is you have several mutual friends? Who is this girl? There is no way she went to high school with you.
Mavis is in a luxurious yet nondescript Minneapolis high-rise, a liminal space of Ikea blueprints, pressed wood, and smudged glass. The sharp angles of the furniture are in sharp contrast to the clutter of Mavis’s home and the farrago of her own appearance. Charlize Theron’s Old Hollywood grace dressed down in sweats with stains. Later, on an unsuccessful date with a philanthropic bachelor, the public-facing Mavis is seen. Sleek. Marc Jacobs incarnate, a jawline that could kill and legs that tower over the entirety of the Mini-Apple. Luscious and lurex, a minidress with proportionality, but in body and visage. She’s the kind of girl no one could forget. She’s not just the hero of her own story– she’s the hero of Mercury.
Mercury, Minnesota, in Mavis’s own words, is “a hick lake town that smells of fish shit.” The most considerable development Mercury has had since Mavis graduated from high school and moved to the city as a ghostwriter is the erection of a Ken-Taco-Hut, an ungodly Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut hybrid. There is no God in a Ken-Taco-Hut. Mavis returns home on account of her old flame Buddy’s (Patrick Wilson) new baby. It has incited something in Mavis. Ostensibly successful and almost violently chic, she wants Buddy back, baby and new wife be damned.
In the early goings, the Codyisms hit fast and hard. A veneer of saccharine nineties grunge, a Cody trademark, overlay every scene. Teenage Fanclub’s The Concept is Mavis’s go-to song, an augur of her high school superiority and nestled-in-nostalgia desire to tear her ex-boyfriend away from his adult life. She’s conniving, catty, and indicative of the contemporary so-bad-she’s-good characterisation traced back to Rachel McAdams’s Regina George. She’s cruel, yes, but she’s iconic.
At a local department store, Mavis nonchalantly asks where the Marc Jacobs is – the department store doesn’t carry “that one.” Why does Mavis need it? “I’m going to a rock concert with an old flame and I think there’s a chance we may reconnect,” she remarks. The associate replies, “Let’s show him what he’s been missing,” to which Mavis answers, “No, he’s seen me recently– he knows. But his wife hasn’t seen me in a while, so…”
The ellipses are almost tangible. Mavis is an agent of chaos, the high school queen bee hellbent on laying waste to the entirety of her Midwest hometown, an ostensibly bitchy blitzkrieg to get what she wants. She is the villain. Mavis is wrong. The introduction to her partner in crime, ex-classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), covers Mavis’s blithe disregard for Matt’s status as a hate crime survivor. Suspected to be gay (he isn’t), some footballers savagely beat him in the woods years before, resulting in a permanent disability. Mavis laughs at her recollection of this. She’s horrible.
Except, well, she isn’t. Mercury is horrible. Matt and Mavis – who, it must be noted, spend an intimate night together late in the film – are outsiders, and that status binds them. That dyad is, frankly, too good – too raw and humanised – for Mercury. Mavis is an alcoholic, a woman grappling with severe substance abuse and depression linked to the miscarriage she experienced while dating Buddy. A gravity well, Mercury always draws her back into its orbit. An orbit so strong, it has permanently precluded Matt from ever leaving, his only respite being the makeshift craft brewery he’s fabricated in his garage.
The hegemony of Mercury is white, straight, and traditional. Men marry women, and those women bear children. The quotidian values of rural Americana are insidious, and the aforementioned Ken-Taco-Hut is as experimental and piquant as Mercury ever intends to be. Mavis, though clouded by grief and regret, maintains a painful cognisance, and beyond her own desires, most thoroughly desires to simply disrupt. Disrupt the town that let her drink herself into obsolescence. The town that savagely paralysed a young man and then cast him aside to the begrimed dive bars and department stores. To disrupt the woman, Buddy’s wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), whose ostensible kindness is but a front for callousness.
In the most visceral and painful scene, Mavis unsuccessfully endeavours to seduce Buddy at his baby-naming party. She stumbles outside, drink in hand, and crashes into Beth, who spills an entire pitcher of sangria onto her dress. Mavis spirals, accosting Beth and the other guests while lamenting, finally, her own miscarriage, an event she feels drove Buddy away. Buddy then appears, and in the lowest blow imaginable, remarks that he didn’t want Mavis at the party – his wife did, largely on account of feeling bad for her.
Mercury is suffocating, and instead of genuine care and concern, there is instead pity. Pity for the pretty, popular blonde who doesn’t really have an excuse for the way her life turned out. It’s farmland frenzy, a blatant disregard for another person’s wellbeing in favour of toxic sympathy and thinly-veiled delight. The pretty girl got what she deserved.
Mavis leaves town the following day, ostensibly wise to how little Mercury holds for her. Her disdain, once characterised by classism and yearning for what wasn’t hers, is now imbued with newfound sobriety, her first moment of solemnity in the entire movie. She was not and is not the mean girl – Mercury is. Mercury with its hegemonic ideals and steadfast allegiance to propriety and eschewing of all things “ugly” – mental illness and grief and the agency of a person’s body. Mavis is not an antihero, nor is she the perfect hero. She is, though, a hero. A survivor. A young adult born anew.
by Chad Collins
Chad Collins graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2019 with his Master of Arts. He works in behavioural health and teaches online. He has been a horror fan since birth and his favourites include: Scream, Halloween, Alien, and tawdry ‘80s slasher films. Find him on Twitter @ChadIsCollins.