This Friday will deliver Tully, a drama about motherhood from the stunning team of director Jason Reitman, writer Diablo Cody and actress Charlize Theron. Reitman and Cody, of course, first worked together on the 2007 sleeper hit Juno. And, blessedly, they reteamed for 2011’s comparatively under-the-radar Young Adult, with Charlize Theron in the lead role.
Theron portrayed Mavis Gary, a former prom queen navigating an unhappy adult existence as a lonely (ghost)writer who pretends she’s more famous and successful than she is really is. After receiving a chance bulk email from her high school boyfriend announcing the birth of his first child, Mavis delusionally decides that heading back to her hometown to reclaim her former flame is how she’ll get her life back on track. It’s a premise fit for a Melissa McCarthy or Amy Schumer comedy – or with a different outcome, perhaps a particularly terrible Kathryn Heigl romcom. But in the hands of Diablo Cody Young Adult is a darkly cynical character study that straddles and sometimes crosses the line between painfully relatable and surely-not outrageousness, uncovering the shallow ways we judge success and fulfilment.
Tully promises to further Reitman, Cody and Theron’s commitment to telling women’s stories that gleefully trample over taboo and Hollywood convention by offering another painfully honest, un-sugar-coated glimpse at one woman’s life. In the aftermath of Lady Bird’s success, this may not sound too groundbreaking. Greta Gerwig’s celebrated directorial debut (as a lone director, anyway) represents a landmark for female-driven cinematic storytelling. Its critical and box office success seems to heralds a long overdue industry realisation: stories about every day women – freed from the unrealistic and reprehensible shackles of the romcom genre, the main space they’ve historically been afforded by mainstream cinema – have value and resonance that translates into revenue.
Young Adult, though far less of a hit, nailed the creative characteristics a few years ahead of its time. Thanks to Cody’s screenplay and a phenomenal performance from Theron which revels in brittle bitchiness yet uncovers Mavis’ well-hidden, deep-rooted insecurities, Young Adult is an affecting portrait of a twenty-first century woman just trying to figure it all out. (Now that sounds familiar).
What all of Cody’s films have in common – a quality they also share with Lady Bird – is representation of working- or lower-middle class lives, eschewing the bland and sanitised aesthetic of wealth that characterises so many films that could have been much more relatable and convincing (Love, Simon is a recent example). A lived-in quality permeates the world of Young Adult right from its opening scene. Mavis wakes up hungover and staggers outside to feed her dog. She doesn’t bother with a bowl, she simply pulls back the carton’s foil lid and plops it down on the ground. A lingering camera shows that several days-old packages litter the ground. Everything is grizzled and weathered like this. It’s a production design choice that surely takes as much work as the rigorous, pedantic symmetry and colour schemes of Wes Anderson, yet it looks just like the real world – it could be a frame from your life.
This scene establishes another quality that marks Young Adult out from typical Hollywood fare – the protagonist is often seen spending time alone. This is virtually unheard of in supposedly female-centric romcoms, where archetypal ‘best friend’ characters often exist purely to enable the main character’s emotional exposition. Theron needs none of this. She conveys all with a look; condescending judgement of others, apathy, increasingly desperate flirtation, the crushing realisation that she’s seriously been barking up the wrong tree. Instead, the secondary characters Mavis interacts with either directly connect to the narrative or offer more of Cody’s trademark well-observed social commentary. Sure, pretty much all of the characters are aged versions of the stalwart figures familiar from high-school movies, but Cody has fun arranging them into surprising, stereotype-breaking configurations. Patton Oswalt’s Matt, once the bullied outsider, is now an expert judge of character and the unlikely yet honest friend Mavis really needs.
Perhaps the cult-like success of Juno, by raising the profiles of Cody and Reitman, enabled them to begin smuggling subtle reconfigurations like this into the mainstream via their industry pleasing bankability. (Casting coups have certainly helped too – Theron was already an Oscar winner by the time she starred in Young Adult, and Meryl Streep later starred in the Cody-penned Jonathan Demme film Ricki and the Flash). From pregnant teen to childless and unlikeable socialite, to a 60+ female rock star in Ricki and the Flash, and now a mother daring to admit it’s actually all a real nightmare; Cody and her collaborators give us real, diverse women. Here’s to many, many more.