At least one definition of narcissism is stated as “Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.” Or see the main character in Young Adult, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron). She is the walking definition.
Mavis writes young adult fiction. Throughout the film she struggles to write one last book in a series she is the ghost writer for. It becomes clear that Mavis is not so much writing about a teenage character set in a different world. She writes what she knows and what she knows, or at least thinks she knows, is herself. There is an interesting play of meta narrative going on whenever the author sits with her laptop and types some new prose.
After she receives an email from her old boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) announcing the birth of his new baby, Mavis becomes obsessed with Buddy. She is so consumed with her self that she can only see one reason she received the email – to make her jealous. On a spur of the moment, after viewing the baby’s picture one too many times, the self-obsessed writer throws some clothes in a bag, shoves her dog in a small case and makes her way back to her small Minnesota town, leaving Minneapolis behind. Her mission is a simple one. She wants to have Buddy for herself once again. He’s not happy without her, at least that’s what Mavis would have everyone who will listen believe.
One of those Mavis confesses her twisted plot with is Matt (Patton Oswalt), who graduated in Mavis’ class. Matt uses a crutch to get around. In high school he was jumped by some fellow classmates and nearly beaten to death. He tells Mavis that he got a lot of attention and sympathy from all around the world when it was thought that he was gay. But once Matt made it clear that he wasn’t gay, the sympathy and attention dissipated almost overnight. He quips that the act was heinous when it was a hate crime but not quite so bad when it was some jocks beating a fat kid with a crow bar. Matt is honest, sometimes painfully so. He doesn’t attempt to elicit sympathy for his plight. He seems to cynically accept his position in life.
Matt’s penchant for telling the truth serves, at least at first, as Mavis’ missing conscience. He is vocal in his opposition to Mavis’ plan to steal Buddy away from a happy marriage with a new baby. He even goes out of his way to run interference when Buddy and Mavis meet for drinks at the bar Matt works at. Buddy seems naive in all of this. His happy-go-lucky attitude and clear devotion for his wife and child are juxtaposed up against his former high school girlfriend’s egocentricity.
The journey to destroy a marriage and fulfill the selfish desires of a despicable character does not sound fun but the way that the screenplay writer, Diablo Cody (most famous for writing Juno), positions her extremely narcissistic main character with a backdrop of decent human beings makes things fun. We can never cheer for our main character. Her plans and her ways are never worth cheering for. But we can laugh at the absurdity of her behavior, realizing that when we give into our own notions of self-importance, our vanity, we transform into creatures not unlike Mavis. And in the end, Young Adult serves as a warning for those of us who might think we’re far away from ever being like Mavis.