Charlize Theron gives an excellent performance in Young Adult

This deliciously dark comedy never takes an obvious turn and rarely strikes a false note.

Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a ghostwriter who returns to her childhood home in a bid to recapture her former high-school glory. Courtesy Paramount Pictures and Mandate Pictures.
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Young Adult Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson

A former small-town beauty with an outwardly glamorous big-city life suffers a midlife meltdown in this witty, acerbic black comedy. Charlize Theron may have won an Oscar for portraying a real-life serial killer in Monster, but rarely has she played such a monstrous anti-heroine as she does in this highly entertaining subversion of Hollywood romcom rules and high-school reunion clichés.

The director Jason Reitman has a strong track record of cynical, state-of-the-nation satires including Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air. He previously collaborated with the screenwriter Diablo Cody on the 2007 adoption comedy Juno, which earned an Academy Award for best screenplay and did phenomenal business at the box office. But that was a quirky teenage fairy tale, full of implausibly sweet eccentrics, whereas Young Adult adopts a far more ambivalent attitude towards its disagreeable protagonists.

Theron plays Mavis Gary, a lonely and neurotic ghostwriter for an ailing franchise of teen-romance novels. Although she is fast approaching 40, Mavis still views the world through the simplistic fluffy-pink filter of her fictitious adolescent characters, largely because she remains emotionally grounded in some lost golden age when she was the high-school queen in her small Midwestern hometown. In Reitman's bravura opening credits sequence, Mavis repeatedly rewinds her favourite early 1990s rock song on audio cassette - a simple but effective metaphor for her mental state.

Struggling with alcohol addiction and the bitter aftermath of divorce, Mavis concludes that her one chance at happiness lies in returning home and stealing back her former boyfriend Buddy Slade (Wilson), even though he is blissfully married with a new baby. Needless to say, this deluded quest to recapture past glories is not a roaring success. Prickly meetings with her ex, her parents and her former classmates only confirm her reputation as a self-absorbed drama queen. Her sole grudgingly supportive confidante is Matt Freehauf (Oswalt), the former class geek who was left with permanent disabilities following a brutal attack by school bullies 20 years ago.

In a lesser film, this misfit duo would have ended up as long-lost soul mates who heal their damaged hearts with love. But to their credit, Cody and Reitman avoid the hackneyed Hollywood pay-off of redemption and reconciliation. Instead of a big group hug, the story climaxes with a sour domestic farce of petty humiliation. The quaint townsfolk reveal their envious and unforgiving side, just as Mavis flees back to the city without ever quite facing her selfish, narcissistic, immature nature.

It may sound like a bracingly bitter exercise in feel-bad misanthropy, but YoungAdult is smart, sophisticated and great fun. Indeed, it is a testament to the quality of Cody's sharp-witted script and two fully rounded performances, by Theron and Oswalt, that we end up sympathising with such plausibly unpleasant protagonists. Admittedly, the other characters are a little short on substance, while the story itself feels too slight for such meaty themes as youthful promise betrayed and the hollowness of the American dream. But that said, this deliciously dark comedy never takes an obvious turn and rarely strikes a false note.