Loved It: “Young Adult” Talking Itself Out of Its Own Ending

This Oscar season, PG-13 for Ugly Cast will be flipping a cordial bird to the arbitrary practice of rank-ordering movies. Instead, we will highlight a handful of Movie Things We Loved, with no pretense of objectivity or internal consistency. Deal with it.

If you thought Young Adult would be a dark comedy about a self-deluded YA author, a proud and spiteful woman who lies, drinks, snubs good people, and conspires to break up a marriage, then you’re half right. It is. But it’s also a horror movie, and Charlize Theron plays the monster. You spend the film cringing as the beautiful villain threatens to inflict pain and suffering on the innocent townsfolk. When she hits rock bottom, humiliated and hysterical before a crowd, you sigh in relief rather than sympathy. At last, the monster is vanquished!

And at this point, with ten minutes left, comes my favorite movie moment of the year.

By now, the monster realizes she has problems. Diablo Cody’s screenplay has already achieved that rare and difficult thing called a character arc, in which a human confronts her own flaws and makes a promise to change. It’s believable. It’s real.

And then a minor character comes along and convinces the character not to change.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Just as the monster awakes to her own monstrosity, culminating a painful path of self-deception and self-discovery; just as she takes the fragile first step towards improving her hellish existence; just as she’s about to grow emotionally, perhaps for the first time in her adult life; just as she’s on the cusp of progress, an old high school acquaintance reassures the monster that she’s perfect just like she is.

At first, the monster insists that she’s sick. But this woman echoes the nonsense that the monster has been telling herself for the entire film: that she’s beautiful and famous, that her hometown is a miserable dead end, that she’s better than the failures who stayed. And, soothed by pleasing lies, the monster’s resolve weakens. She loses the will to change.

It’s a hell of a finish. I’ve seen movies with happy endings, and ones with bleak endings, but I’ve never seen a movie that earned the happy ending, and then talked itself into the bleak one.

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3 thoughts on “Loved It: “Young Adult” Talking Itself Out of Its Own Ending

  1. Pingback: Movie Things We Loved | PG-13 for Ugly Cast

  2. Why does it HAVE to be a bleak ending? Lives are relative. That’s what I enjoyed about the ending is that even though I wanted her to grow and stuff, I also realized there was some truth to sister’s side of the story. Why DO people think that small towns are a miserable dead end? Maybe because they are. But, her other life in that massive apartment tower complex things looked lane too. well, her other life in minneapple will be a dead end too. All lives have dead ends but it’s about whether or not you want to be there. Anyway, I think it’s better this way for the character because people make changes in small steps. You can’t expect it to stick after one night! However the last shot if that broken car I think explained that she couldn’t completely go back to how things were before. She HAS to make changes.

    • That’s a good point – this could be the first, incremental step for her.

      You’re right that her staying in the town would have rung false. It’s totally plausible, though, that she might have hit the road without first rejecting the idea of change. The movie that ends with her driving away, vowing to become a better person would be very different than the image of her driving away to listen to that same song that she kept playing over the opening credits.

      You might be right about small towns, too. But one thing I liked about this movie was that it resisted the anti-suburbs thread in American movies (Little Children, American Beauty,etc.) and instead made the suburb seem dull but pleasant, which strikes me as truer to life than the standard depiction of the suburb as the seething with repression and misery.

      Anyway, good points, and thanks for reading!

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