Prom queen blues
The title refers to the central character, a 30-something divorcee who ghost-writes novels in a “young adult” series. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a former prom queen, still blonde and svelte, and she gets the notion of returning to her home town to finish her current overdue assignment while also trying to reconnect with her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) even though he’s happily married to Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) and delighted with the recent birth of their first child.
Diablo Cody’s witty, ironic script sets up a tour de force on a couple of levels—for the two lead actors, Theron and Patton Oswalt, whose respective characters are bittersweet foils in Cody’s surprisingly stark comedy of arrested adolescence; and for director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), who manages a consistently smart blend of the story’s stingingly disparate elements. It’s an inverted romantic comedy, a plaintive study in delusion and denial, a darkly comic escapade that turns its characters’ feel-good/happy-talk impulses inside out.
Theron’s Mavis is a credibly convoluted (and at least partly unsympathetic) portrait of a not-so-young adult who remains mired in a particularly fatuous kind of adolescent mentality. She’s a sorrowful caricature, simultaneously, of teenage ditziness and the forever-young brand of contemporary quasi-adult sentimentality.
Oswalt’s Matt Freehauf, a permanently damaged (and literally crippled) victim of a particularly vicious kind of high school bullying, is a movingly trenchant counterforce to Mavis in Cody’s scenario. The film’s dark, quirky combination of comedy and drama gets its most incisively mixed emotions from the intense, fleeting bond that forms between the two of them.
Mavis’ encounters with Buddy and Beth and especially with her parents (Jill Eikenberry and Richard Bekins)—whom she’s neglected to visit during her single-minded homecoming—map out the story’s ironic social psychology. These four, along with Matt, are potential guiding lights for Mavis, but they are also, in various small and telling ways, her enablers.