Patton Oswalt vs the Prom Queen: an Appreciation of YOUNG ADULT

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Other Worlds Orbiter presents SEX MADNESS REVEALED, starring Patton Oswalt and Rob Zabrecky, SMR takes the form of an audio commentary that plays out over the little known 1938 STD propaganda film SEX MADNESS. Patton (the voice of a persnickety film blogger) interviews the descendant of the original motion picture’s director who harbors a nefarious secret.

Please join us, and director Tim Kirk, for the Texas premiere on Wednesday, September 19 (7:30PM) at Flix Brewhouse. You can get more info and reserve your tickets here.

Obviously Patton Oswalt is a sizable part of our excitement about SEX MADNESS REVEALED! He’s been in so many awesome movies and shows - could you ever choose a favorite? Well yes, you could. And I gladly take this opportunity to examine his without-a-doubt best film. After getting his start with bit parts in comedy shows like SEINFELD and THE WEIRD AL SHOW, then moving up with voicing animated characters in cult shows like AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE and a little Pixar movie called RATATOUILLE, Oswalt snuck in this quiet gem of a cringe comedy called YOUNG ADULT.

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Sometimes I wonder whether people who were popular and mean in high school recognize in hindsight that they were mean. I’m genuinely curious because I think that’d be a very difficult truth to face about yourself — that you were the bully, the bad guy. And if you don’t see that about yourself, is it because you’ve constructed your own inner version of what it was like back then? One that differs from the general consensus? Obviously everyone experiences the world with themselves as the protagonist, but bullies exist, so someone has to take on that role.

I find YOUNG ADULT to be a striking, tragic, and completely underrated (and underwatched!) character study of a trope that has never been examined in such a human way. It’s a razor-sharp dark comedy about a mean girl, Mavis, who never really grew up after high school. She returns to her hometown to win back her high school boyfriend Buddy — who just so happens to be happily married with a new baby. She is an asshole.

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Mavis is clearly on the autism spectrum but was never diagnosed, surely thanks to the combination of her striking good looks and the taciturn social nature of the Midwestern state she lives in. Her RBF (resting bitch face, natch) is more a near-constant look of sheer disdain. She’s just, as one character snarls, “a psychotic prom-queen bitch.” And they’re not really wrong to say that, because Mavis is mean, immature, and selfish. Most return-to-the-hometown films introduce the “mean popular classmate” character as a side comic relief of sorts, someone that the likable protagonist runs into at a bar and thinks, “look how sad it is that their life peaked in high school and they’re still doing the same stuff and being jerks.” YOUNG ADULT makes this “side” character — a washed-up villain of sorts — its protagonist. It’s pretty goddamn uncomfortable in parts. And I applaud the film wholeheartedly for making it so. Unlikable as she is, it’s incredibly fascinating to get hints throughout the film of why she is the way that she is. She has constructed her own reality that’s based on dreamy rose-colored recollections of her youth. You never want her to succeed in her plan, but you do wonder what she’ll do next.

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Patton’s character Matt is the nerdy ex-classmate of Charlize Theron’s Mavis. Living at his parents’ house, working in the same town he grew up in, he embodies loserdom to her. Nevertheless, she’s always looking for a willing listener, and she takes him into her confidence. Matt’s role is mainly a catalyst for Mavis’s character to turn a corner (refreshing indeed when the male character exists to further the female protagonist, the opposite of the usual gender dynamic in movies). But there is a meat to his character, particularly his own high school history, which diverges tragically from Mavis’s experience. He was violently beaten by jocks and left handicapped as a result. Both of their lives were severely damaged by the high school experience; one of them doesn’t realize it, and the other has physical reminders to ensure that he’ll never forget. They’re a fascinating match, and both Theron & Oswalt embody these characters to near perfection.

Throughout the film Matt tries to talk sense into Mavis, first delicately and then more directly when she crosses some lines (“You’re fucking mentally ill.”) Her perspective widens ever so slightly. She even has a moment of grace and self-awareness. And then that ending! Mavis encounters another former classmate, one who never stopped fawning over her and who abruptly cuts the lifeline that Matt had just given Mavis by reinforcing her ego and pooh-poohing her realization that she should change. It’s a fantastic twist snuck into the last few minutes, a bait-and-switch of sorts where, yeah, you could argue that Mavis doesn’t change by the film’s end. But that’s exactly what gives the ending its punch. The brief camaraderie she finds in Matt, the hard-fought self-awareness won and then lost again…it’s truly tragic in showing how the cycle of bullying and adolescent worldviews can continue unabated.

There are those who only want to watch movies that have escapist entertainment value. My aunt comes to mind, with whom I went to see EIGHTH GRADE last week and she was so angry that she paid money to basically relive the harrowing experience of middle school, one she (and many of us) would rather forget. But movies like that one and YOUNG ADULT truly reinforce the importance of film as an art form. They make you feel and think and cringe. I love feeling awkward during a movie -- it’s comforting to know that the pain of the human experience is a shared one. Though I’d be lying if I didn’t also say it’s comforting to know that at least I’m better off than Mavis. But Oswalt’s Matt - this guy really shines throughout these odd and even cruel few days with her; this guy who, in spite of being forced to grow up too fast under terrible circumstances, still exudes a dignity and understanding and even a noble sympathy for the girl who was a bitch to him in high school. He is not a saint, for this film humanizes everyone in it to a painful degree. But next to Mavis, even the most basic humanity comes off as humbling greatness, to the point where you find yourself hoping that, in the grand scheme of things, you’ve ended up a little more like the handicapped nerd than the prom queen. That owes a lot to Oswalt’s performance. And that’s why it’s his best role to date.