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Soundtracking: "Young Adult"

We're celebrating Charlize Theron before Atomic Blonde opens this week! Here's Chris Feil's weekly series on music in the movies...

Young Adult begins with a near ten minute stretch of almost silence before its recurring song choice bursts in and becomes one of the film’s most illuminating crutches of its antihero Mavis Gary, played with utter genius by Charlize Theron.

At the news that her high school sweetheart Buddy is a new father, Mavis departs her depressing life on a cringe-inducing quest to win him back, armed with tunes from their love that she keeps in a memory box in her closet. The keepsake mixtape “Mad Love, Buddy” begins with “The Concept” by Teenage Fanclub, quite the apropos band name for Mavis’s frozen disposition. After several instant rewinds it becomes clear this isn’t just a favorite road trip singalong, but the one she remembers Buddy by. Their song.

It’s a very specific song choice for her to idolize. It dates Mavis and Buddy’s high school days to early 90s grunge, but is a far cry from the majors of the era. That forgotten track air lends a singularity to Mavis’s POV on that relationship - rarified and all hers, of a distant era but not ringing up the cozy familiarity of a lingering hit. It’s about as genuinely affectionate as Theron ever plays Mavis, but as usual she’s stuck on a loop. If her dingy apartment and dissociate attitude didn’t already make it clear, her refuge in the song tells us that her vantage on Buddy lacks honesty and clarity.

The opening sequence intersperses shots of the neon cassette wheeling out the song, marking a clear distinction between warm nostalgia and the kind of willful displacement that Mavis experiences. We see the music, and therefore the time period, quite differently - we jam along semi-ironically but she’s dead serious. She’s still living it, unaware of the cassette’s contemporary silliness or that the song she sings along to is relatively unfamiliar. I guess we all have our favorites.

Initially, the sequence subtly reminds of how director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody used music to establish their point of view in Juno. But here this musicality does more heavy lifting than projecting tone, it creates that distance between character action and narrative perspective. Like the rest of the film, the sequence strikes a tricky balance of comedy and unflinching character insight. Tough but not mean-spirited.

When Mavis joins Buddy to see his wife Beth’s band, they dedicate a flimsy cover of “The Concept” to him. Theron instantly shrouds Mavis in the kind of glare we’re accustomed to seeing on her before she dispatches a room of bad guys. The performance by Nipple Confusion (great band name!) is the antithesis of Mavis’s earnest singing in her grubby car. They actually are fun, not taking themselves too seriously, and the song doesn’t carry nearly the same weight for them. Beth is in the back on drums, so it has to doubly grate on Mavis that Beth isn’t even the star yet Buddy stares on adoringly.

For Mavis, it feels like more than an invasion of her memories, but almost an invasion of her personal headspace. This thing she had ascribed to the relationship she idealized is suddenly a reflection of the lies she tells herself. Maybe the song was more Buddy’s than “theirs”.


Previous Soundtracking Favorites:
A Mighty Wind
Big Little Lies

Best Worst Thing...
American Honey
but all installments can be found here!

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Reader Comments (16)

This movie is one of my all time favorite films. I've made so many people watch it and most can't seem to get past how unflinchingly uncomfortable it is and how unlikable Charlize is in it.

The gifs you posted above is one of my favorite moments in the film. I seriously think it is some of the best acting I've ever seen. It's incredible.

As for the song itself, it almost feels like a character all on its own. It is a reminder of their past and almost like the child Mavis lost with Buddy. Something she can never get over so she turns on the song to bring her back to a place when maybe she was happy.

Now I have to go watch this film for the 238th time.

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTDC

Great analysis. I really need to watch this film again.

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

I am so glad you wrote this!

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermikenewq

I don't want Charlize to stare at me ever.

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Best Actress in 2011 was a disaster

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

@Peggy Sue - it was such a strong year for lead actresses and the final five nominees did not reflect that as well as they could have.

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Still weeping and she got in for North Country i'd take away that nomination for this,Monster is better 14 years later,it was no stunt.

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Loved Young Adult. Saw it again last year and it really held up - it was even better than I'd remembered. The supporting cast was great and Theron was wonderfully vivid - she really understood what made Mavis tick and I actually felt some understanding (if not flat out sympathy) for her by the end. Def Diablo Cody's best film to date (and I really like Juno). Excellent analysis, Chris.

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Definitely one of the most overlooked films of the last decade as I think Charlize was robbed of a nomination.

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Completely robbed of a nomination, and maybe even the win!

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

Everyone saying Charlize was robbed for this: you are my people. I think it's the performance of the decade but didn't feel appropriate to mention for the piece.

This is one of the movies that inspired me to start this series, so I really hope everyone enjoys!

July 26, 2017 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

Love this movie and as time goes by it looks like Reitman's best film. So underrated.

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLucky

there are so many great, great things about the film [yes, charlize was robbed] but the thing i really appreciate is that beth never feels threatened by mavis - such a smart, adult choice

July 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterpar

I convince myself that Charlize was nominated for this film. I might be biased because I've lived in Minneapolis most of my life! But I read an interview with Diablo Cody when they asked her why she didn't set it somewhere more obviously glamorous like NYC, and she said it was much more believable that Mavis would have been from a small town in northern Minnesota and went to "the big city" to look and feel like a big deal.

Patton Oswalt gave a very insightful interview once and said that Charlize's performance is masterful about playing an alcoholic; note how in the day scenes she's always tired, and she doesn't really come "alive" until night.

July 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

It's not just Charlize that was robbed of an Oscar nom for this (and she really was; think of how much she's conveying about Mavis on multiple levels in each scene) - Patton Oswalt is terrific, too. And Diablo Cody's screenplay is just impossibly brilliant. That last scene with Charlize and Collette Wolfe is just.... there are no words.

I love this piece, very astute about how the song choice and Reitman's direction play off each other.

July 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

I luv Theron in Monster, but this YA is surely her best performance (to-date)!!

I think there is many bits and pieces of the real Charlize that she puts tt make pple uncomfortable...

Not to be mean, but somehow I feel that she's not really acting at all!! Lol

July 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

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