Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is the ghostwriting author of a series of Young Adult novels about a high school, but this is coming to an end soon and she only has one more book to write to finish the franchise off. This proves more difficult than it should for her, as her unacknowledged alcoholism is getting in the way, and she's ignoring the pressing calls from her publisher. So when she receives an e-mail from her old boyfriend from school Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) telling her that he has just welcomed a new baby into the world, Mavis feels a strong pang of jealousy...
But what can she do? How about winning him back from his loving wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser)? With one broken marriage behind her, Mavis senses she knows all about ruined relationships, and means to put that experience to work, which is what made up most of the plot of Young Adult, the second collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody after their sleeper hit Juno. After she had penned that, Cody wrote Jennifer's Body, which was widely lambasted, something which may have been simple prejudice at what success she had achieved before, for with this script she proved she could set aside the slangy dialogue and drill into the heads of her characters.
Theron must have been delighted to receive a script she could really take by the scruff of the neck, and was not one of those popular because there's not much competition romantic comedies where the female lead has to act the buffoon before getting her man. Here Mavis was far more brittle, damaged, but that was mostly down to the reverse side of the crippling self-awareness that many characters in comedies such as this might suffer - if anything, she has a crippling lack of self-awareness which is digging her deeper into a life of misery. Yet she has always been superficial, and this reluctance to deal with any major issues she may have results in the messy private life she has at the beginning of the film.
And continues throughout, the main source of humour being how badly behaved Mavis can be when everyone else around her is doing their best to be polite. When she arrives in her old smalltown, it's clear from her mission that she is one of those people who never got over school, not thanks to a terrible time she had there, but the opposite, she was one of the most popular girls, which has given her a false impression of how the rest of her life should have played out. Contrast that with one of her former classmates who she meets by chance in the bar, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who has also been affected by his formative years - but that's due to a beating from the jocks which left him physically disabled.
They nearly killed him because they thought he was gay, the irony being he wasn't, yet somehow Matt and Mavis are kindred spirits now, if they were certainly not back then. He acts as the voice of her conscience, and if there's a rather repetitive cycle to the plotting, enough insight kept you watching, through your fingers at times, granted, with only the bafflement that everyone in the hometown should seem so oblivious to Mavis's obvious shortcomings, especially the apparently clueless Buddy. Of course, there's a key scene late on which points out this is not the case which offers Mavis a wake-up call, but this doesn't leave you feel guilty for laughing at her when a heart to heart with Matt's sister (Collette Wolfe) has her in a "Screw you guys!" frame of mind which may or may not last. At times it's the details - Mavis's alternately ignoring and doting over her pet dog, for example - which speak volumes, but mostly it was the way that the cast, Theron and Oswalt especially, inhabited their characters with such painful precision. Music by Rolfe Kent.