THE YOUNG ADULT, THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR, THE STORY WITHIN THE STORY
AND THE TRASHING OF WOMEN
The “unreliable narrator” is a literary device, or concept if you will, that is rarely used. The device is difficult to use effectively, because readers expect narrators to be reliable; they assume that the story being told is, at least, straightforward. Grumpier readers of Agatha Christie mystery novels would complain that the dear lady would hide clues and suddenly solve the puzzle by producing the final inexplicable piece. Readers felt cheated that Christie, who was often too clever by half, had not allowed them to participate in the solution. On a much higher level on the literary scale was Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the narrator, a writer, obsessively wrote and rewrote a story from her childhood in a futile attempt to make it turn out right. In McEwan’s deft hands, the tripartite telling could enrage some readers (my friend David) and intrigue others (me) who interpreted the unreliable narrator as the author/s’ way of saying that our lives are merely constructed fictions, rewritten by us.
What can one say about the unreliable narrator of Young Adult? My first thought was that the writer for this aggravating film was a man who did not comprehend women; but the writer is a female, Diablo Cody. Cody wrote Juno, another film I truly disliked, but for other reasons. In Young Adult, Cody pulled an Agatha Christie on the viewer, revealing, at the very end, a secret that upended the entire premise of the plot. My next thought was that all the critics were, for some reason, mis-representing the story or mis-understanding the story or mis-telling the story or simply missing the story. Cody bears a great deal of the responsibility for insisting that the leading character, played by Charlize Theron, is “unsympathetic” and spends “ninety minutes trying to steal another woman’s husband.”
In almost every film review (I have read most of them but not all), the reviewers repeat the standard line—-Mavis Gary is a horrible character, a former high school beauty queen, who returns to a hometown for which she feels nothing but contempt, intending to ruin the marriage of her former boyfriend. The impetus for this journey of (self)destruction appears to be a message from Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) that he and his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) have just had a baby girl. From the very beginning of the movie, it is clear that Mavis is a deeply depressed angry alcoholic who can barely get dressed in the morning. She lives a half-life as a ghost-writer of novels for young adult girls. Pressed by her editor for the last book of the series, she diverts herself by going on a quest fueled by sheer meanness, to snatch her old boyfriend back after nearly twenty years at the very moment of the peak of his happiness.
How could the average movie-goer like such a character? At every turn, we are lured into accepting the judgment of the town’s middle-aged women who remember her from high school—a “psycho bitch.” Reviewers have made much of the odd pairing between the beautiful Theron and the lumpy Patton Oswalt. But no one explores why the two, one a popular and beautiful girl and the other a misfit, find an emotional connection at a local bar in the dreaded Mercury, Minnesota. “Matt Freehauf” has never left the small town, the place where he was beaten by high school jocks who thought he was gay. He lives with his naïve sister and paints hybrid hero figures. At first it is hard to tell who is more mentally ill: the man who never left the site of his torment and humiliation or the woman who came back to relive her glory days. Something is broken within both souls of this non-couple. The dysfunctional metaphor is very clumsily made with the gratuitous and literal crippling of Matt who walks with a cane.
But there are strange inconsistencies in the film that might—in the hands of a better writer—pass for clues. There are inconsistencies and inexplicable actions on the part of the characters. Why, one might ask, does “Buddy” agree to meet his former girlfriend at a local “restaurant” (I use quotation marks as a comment on the food on the menu) without bringing his wife along? Why do Mavis’s parents (Jill Eikenberry and Richard Bekins) brush her aside when she reaches out for help by telling them that she thinks she is an alcoholic? Why is she so alienated from these seemingly nice people?
At every turn, we are lead to blame Mavis—-she has discarded her parents like she discarded her home town—she has put on the red-light clothes: she is trying to wreck a home. But we should be asking other questions: why does “Buddy,” who, we are repeatedly told is a loving husband and father, keep putting himself in her path? Why, given that Mavis has made her intentions to rekindle their relationship clear, did he then invite her to his child’s “naming ceremony?” What kind of man would act in such as way—encourage an obviously troubled woman who is trying to seduce him? What is the significance of “Matt” telling Mavis that “down south” things don’t work very well since his beating?
This is where the unreliable narrator comes in. The unreliable narrator appears to be doubled in this film: Mavis is writing her latest novel and the viewer follows the teenage story as a counterpoint for the actual plot of the movie. Diablo Cody puts Mavis in one humiliating situation after another, leading the viewer to believe that this woman is responsible for all the consequences that befall her. The character is torn down not just by the writer but also by the audience who always hated the pretty and popular girl in high school.
We secretly dream of going to our high school reunion and seeing the blond and bouncy head cheerleader as a gray haired hag. The writer uses the worst instincts of the audience—blame the victim. Everyone condemns Mavis and takes some sly satisfaction in enjoying the come-uppance of a former prom queen. In one strange scene, Mavis asks Buddy’s wife, who works with special needs children, about a chart of expressions used for teaching her students. Where, Mavis inquires, is the neutral expression that does not show emotion? We are thus led to believe that she has no feelings.
But there is a scene in which Mavis has a public outburst and a long suppressed grief comes out suggesting that she dare not feel, that she numbs herself in order to not break in two. Mavis carefully dresses in a very conservative fashion for the “naming ceremony.” With his wife in another part of their home, Buddy agrees to talk with Mavis alone and then, after leading her on for days, rejects her. His wife later accidentally spills a drink on Mavis’s white blouse and Mavis blows up and calls her a “bitch.”
And, suddenly, out of the blue, comes a revelation that explains her depression, her self-destructive behavior and makes her a completely sympathetic character—-when she was twenty, Mavis was pregnant with “Buddy’s” child and lost the baby in a miscarriage. The young couple had been planning marriage and was expecting to make a family when suddenly this sad event occurred.
Keep in mind that this truth comes out at the “naming ceremony” to which this nice husband has lured her. Mavis reveals her story to the silent contempt of the invited guests. Buddy’s wife has no reaction to this news that he fathered another child. The crowd, including her parents, blame Mavis. Although no explanation is ever given for how Mavis got from the miscarriage in Mercury to a writing career in Minneapolis, it is clear that this woman has been suffering for almost two decades from melancholia, from the unresolved loss and grief of the end of youth and hope.
Now Buddy’s actions seem positively sadistic—to send his former girlfriend who lost his child a birth announcement is nothing short of viscous and cruel. To invite her to one event after another, lead her on, to keep her on the hook is a reprehensible betrayal of his wife. Mavis read Buddy quite well from a distance—he did indeed panic over the baby, he did indeed want to be liberated—-so he summoned her to free him. Then he lost his nerve and we are left with the impression that when she needed him most, twenty years ago, he must have let her down. This supposedly nice guy deliberately draws a lonely, damaged and vulnerable woman into an agonizing situation of a “naming ceremony” and blames her for breaking apart—we included you, he tells her, because it is clear that you are so sad and needy and depressed—-we all feel sorry for you—and now look at what a bad girl you are.
No wonder Mavis writes novels for young adults. She is trying to rewrite her own life. No wonder Mavis is an alcoholic, no wonder she is depressed, no wonder she is angry. It is not that she hasn’t grown up; she became an adult out of sorrow…long ago. It is Buddy who doesn’t want to grow up—-in the most hurtful way he can imagine, he calls out for his old love. It is Buddy’s wife who escapes the baby—-she plays in a rock band. But the film is unmoved by Mavis’s true story. We assumed that she was so unloving that she hated children, but we now know why she was so numb and unmoved by the child that Buddy forced her to confront. Her announcement that the happy event at the “naming ceremony” could have been for her child passes without making a ripple, not in the town, not in the script, and the writer, the unreliable narrator, pulls back and moves on without pausing to consider what such a revelation might mean to her characters.
The real unsympathetic character is not Mavis but Buddy who is a passive aggressive good old by in a frumpy plaid shirt. He is one of the nastiest perpetrators of a supposedly comedic film in a long time. The viewer looks back on the earlier parts of the film—–Buddy and Mavis meet after many years and do not mention the shared sadness that parted them? Mavis’s parents keep her old room in its teenage state? The unreliable narrator leads the reader on, creating and building on false assumptions. A good writer would have allowed the characters to make a feint or a move that would allow the reader to make the connection later. Yes, poor Mavis does not work very well “down south” either. A bad writer simply yanks a rabbit out of the hat and then throws it away—Mavis is haunted by an old wound—-so what?
Alone and abandoned again, Mavis ends her last Young Adult novel by killing off her character’s old boyfriend and his new girlfriend. One of the narrators in this story within a story is perfectly honest and true and that narrator is Mavis. Yes, the small town did not suit her, yes the girls were jealous of her, yes, she had talents that needed to be developed, and yes, the boyfriend got the ending he deserved. The Young Adult series comes to a close when the protagonist finally graduates from high school and leaves home for good.
I wondered when Juno came out what kind of message a “successful” teen pregnancy sent to young women. In real life such an event is a traumatic disruption. Often the young woman is not supported by the father or by her family. Usually, having a child throws a young girl’s life off course and there are grave consequences—education delayed or ended, career plans put on hold or given up, years of maturation denied by premature responsibility. Juno was a fantasy that a teenage pregnancy is a blessed event enriching the lives of all involved. Life simply isn’t like that. A young woman is such a situation is faced with terrible choices—-who will pay the price? Who will sacrifice? In Young Adult, as in life, it is the woman who bears the consequences. Buddy has clearly shrugged off his past while, at the same time, he has engaged in an act of unwarranted revenge towards a woman who has done him no harm.
Young Adult is even more deeply cynical and more deeply hurtful towards women than Juno. The movie begins and ends blaming Mavis for the cruelty of her old boyfriend. She is punished throughout the film and is not allowed even a moment of understanding or sympathy. Man after man takes advantage of a helpless self-loathing that has forced her to disassociate herself from her own body. I have written elsewhere of female film writers, Nancy Meyers is a prime offender, who create female protagonists only to tear them down and to put them in their rightful place. Young Adult is another such film by a woman writer.
Young Adult is particularly cruel and nasty towards women. The current social wars going on against women in state after state, the political attempts to take rights away from women across the nation are based upon an unprecedented plan to control women’s behavior at the expense of their freedom. Young Adult seems to reflect the cultural desire to blame women for what is an act between two people and to punish women for a natural human impulse. The lack of support for “Mavis” is indicative of the lack of support for the aspirations and dreams of young women who must struggle to take care of themselves in a world that is increasingly hostile to their hopes.
It is a shame that the film missed an opportunity to take a serious look at the damage done when women are blamed for falling in love with a boy and getting pregnant. It is a shame that the film declined to examine what happens when women must carry the social burden of the consequences of being a young adult. Imagine how the film could have developed if Mavis had called out Buddy and his behavior. But this is a lazy and disingenuous film. It is easier to blame the victim and move on. Too bad.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger