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A Double Dose of DVDs: Young Adult & Take Shelter, Reviews

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Young Adult & Take Shelter, DVD Reviews

A Double-Feature Review by TJ Brearton

Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt in Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011)Not since Monster has Charlize Theron inhabited a character so thoroughly – okay, except maybe for Aeon Flux, but that’s a different monster altogether. In Young Adult, Theron plays someone you probably wouldn’t like if you spent five minutes with her.  Wholly self-absorbed to the point of being delusional, Theron’s character Mavis Gary is a ghost writer at the end of a once successful young adult fiction series.  Mavis gets it in her head that she’s going to return to her hometown of Mercury, Missouri, and rekindle an old flame…even though he’s happily married and has a new baby.  She drinks, she chugs diet coke the next morning, she mostly ignores her tiny Pomeranian, and she’s anything but nice to the former nerd who has remained in Mercury, living with his sister, played by Patton Oswalt.  Patton attempts to be her voice of reason, her foil, and not complicit in her wiles to win back “Buddy Swade,” the once superstud of the high school scene.  Mavis, too, was one of the popular ones in high school, though not everyone liked her then, and seems to like her even less now.  “That psycho prom-queen bitch” is how one former classmate refers to her.

What elevates Young Adult above, say, such other homecoming fare as Hope Floats (1998, Sandra bullock flick) or Sweet Home Alabama, is the incendiary, irreverent writing of Diablo Cody.  Cody wowed audiences with her sprightly film Juno, in 2007 and has written United States of Tara for Showtime.  Her knack is running that razor’s edge, staying in between the saccharine and the obviously dark or too-shrewd.  Her characters are often wry, sarcastic, but these traits issue from believable places within them.  The second big plot turn of the film, where Mavis has her meltdown in front of a group of former high-schoolers and their families, is written so well by Cody and handled so adeptly by Theron, both the tension and catharsis are palpable.  But rather than wrap things up in a neat little bow, rather than dissolve into a “lesson-learned-and-we’re-all-better-people-now” formulaic ending, Cody eschews the obvious and heads instead for the realistic – though we may eventually dummy up to our flaws and change our behavior, the road is long and hard which, out of hell, as the man said, leads up to light.  Recidivism, let’s face it, is far more common than recovery.   While most films tend to have always focused on the moments where change occurs, this film, while providing a journey, while touring the psychological landscape of a disturbed character, brings her just to the precipice of enlightenment, where many of us tend to remain.  Especially those who are truly disturbed; in this case, a perpetual young adult.

Michael Shannon in Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)Michael Shannon’s character, Curtis, has his public meltdown, too.  In Take Shelter, the subtle, powerful Shannon who’s tended off-center, juicier roles than common leads, is a father and husband having strange visions about an impending storm of great magnitude.  He lives in Ohio with his beautiful wife and their hearing-impaired daughter.  His life is a “good life,” says his closest friend, played by Shea Whigham.  “I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man.  To look at his life and say, ‘that’s good.’”  “It’s not always easy,” says Curtis.  No, it’s not.  Not when your nightmares consist of storms ravaging your home, your dog attacking you, the sky raining syrupy oil, mysterious strangers kidnapping your daughter and everyone you love turning on you in an attempt to kill you.  Not when you often awake from those nightmares in a seizure.

The dreams bring Curtis to question his sanity – his mother has schizophrenia and abandoned him at age 10.  The visions also cause him to start preparing, by building on to an underground shelter in his backyard, and equipping it with plumbing and food – enough to live on for a week, or longer.  Curtis keeps his dreams from his wife, played by Tree of Life’s Jessica Chastain, and a growing distance between them eventually engulfs them in a blowout where Curtis breaks down and tells her the truth.  “I told myself I would never leave,” he says, meaning that, when he considers his mother’s illness, and the possibility of its inheritance, he would never abandon his family like she did.  But it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Curtis to hold on – and now his dreams feature his wife’s murderous intent.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, also with Shannon) has something fantastic on his hands here – and it’s more than the amber-colored oil falling from the sky on Curtis’s life.  In addition to the judicious use of subtle special effects (really, the only way special effects should ever be handled – as a seamless enhancement, and not a principal quality) Nichols, like Cody, has found the line between two more obvious choices.  On the one hand, there are films made every day which are powered by intrigue.  The carrot that keeps the viewer interested is a vague and unsolved mystery, a haunted character, a lingering question.  Often these types of films cheat any sort of resolution.  It was mysterious to begin with, and so it shall end mysterious, these films seem to say to us.  Only, frequently, “mysterious” simply means hedging one’s bets.  While this lack of provisions may be fun in film school, or at an art house, the married-couple-at-home-with-kids looking forward to a respite via cinematic adventure do not feel so rewarded by an open-ended film.

On the other side of the line, there is the easy grab – a character’s atypical experiences can be quickly explained away by one of a handful of stock deux ex machinas.  For instance, it was aliens from outer space that caused the dreams.  Or, it was madness after all, and he’s actually been experiencing all of this from a mental institution where his real self sits and drools in a straightjacket.  Jeff Nichols deftly avoids these traps, and brings the story to a conclusion that is not only satisfying, but perfectly in timbre with the rest of the story, leaving it both mysterious and yet perfectly resolved.  Not an easy feat.

Young Adult and Take Shelter end quite differently from one another.  And the context is certainly disparate.  She is a single woman who is 37 experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis and backfiring narcissism, he is a family man who is plagued by visions and the threat of insanity.  She actually embodied more characteristics of the persistently delusional – Mavis is convinced of her skewed version of reality, while Curtis questions his, and seeks help.  Both characters wrestle with psychological issues, and both profoundly affect the people around them with these issues.  And at the same time, their issues are representative of the larger culture.  In Young Adult, writer Cody presents us with a case of entitlement, and a wink at the destruction which can come slowly but surely after a life of early fame and glory, and through desires for superiority among fellow humans.  Mavis’s inferiority complex is so built in, it reminds one of the built-in inferiority complex of America itself, and of a culture which constantly asserts itself as robust with riches, military power, celebrity, and the Dream itself, while, in many ways, withering and vulnerable on the inside.  Curtis’s dilemma between possible schizophrenia and potentially prophetic visions speak to the dissonance which exists in the very world we all inhabit, and the enduring inability for any one person to claim which is a vital, authentic vision of the world, and what is just someone’s poor, warped brain running aground.  Have all soothsayers and visionaries been condemned by the largesse as mad or insane during their time?  Quite possibly.  Have people who have seen more than they care to see and have sensitive insights into the world suffered at the hands of their unrequested talents?  Very likely.  In a moment of emotional pain and anger, having been provoked by his former friend, Curtis yells at a group of people in public: “A storm is coming like you’ve never seen – and not a one of you is prepared!”

His gift, or his curse, is of Biblical proportions.  And yet, he is just a man who very likely has inherited some semblance of his mother’s madness.   Can we ever truly agree on the difference between madness and a third eye?  Can we ever tell someone who is convinced of their delusion the reality of their life as we see it – before they are ready for their own awakening?  In either case, it’s a big, fat, no.  But in the hands of these careful, intelligent, and even masterful writers like Cody and Nichols, they decides for us, and each give us a pitch-perfect answer, though they are so very different.

TJ Brearton is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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