Fan Mail: “stammitti90” wondered, as others have, about the title of the column being “Understanding Screenwriting,” since he thinks the column is just film reviews with a few references to screenwriters. There are of course more than a few references. Compare how many times I mention the writers in my reviews to any other reviewer. Or how much I talk about the script in my comments on Hugo in that column as opposed to how much David Ehrenstein talks about Scorsese in his comments on the item. Too often people writing about screenwriting seem to forget that screenwriting is part of the process of filmmaking. Rather than a generic (Three Acts, Hero’s Journey, et al) column about screenwriting, I am trying to give you a nuanced look at how the screenwriting elements of a film are part of the collaborative process of filmmaking. You will see an example of that below in the discussion about the script and Charlize Theron’s performance in Young Adult.
David E. was getting on me for “dissing” the visuals in Hugo, but the one time I mentioned the visuals it was to praise them for giving us reactions of Hugo watching the people in the station. I am not sure I agree with David that I have a “terribly literal idea of what cinematic narrative consists of,” unless by that I want the film to make sense in an interesting way. It can do that with dialogue and/or visuals, as I indicated a little farther down in that column in my comments on Sullivan’s Travels. By the way, David, thanks for the story on Vidal quoting Robert Grieg’s speech from Travels. It tickles my mind to think of Vidal doing that speech.
Young Adult (2011. Written by Diablo Cody. 94 minutes.)
Petting the dog: Hollywood studio development executives always insist that characters have to be “likable” and usually ask for a scene early in the script that shows it. This is known in the trade as the “petting the dog” scene, after the old silent film convention that the hero comes into town and pets the dog, while the villain comes in and kicks the dog. You even see it in documentary films. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Triumph of the Will has two of the most brilliant cuts in her career: she cuts from Hitler in a car looking up to a pussycat looking down out of a window, and then cuts back to Hitler turning back from looking up. Uncle Adolph loves the pussycat and the pussycat loves Uncle Adolph. Needless to say, screenwriters resent this. When David Benioff was writing Troy (2004), he kept getting notes from Warners that Achilles had to be more likable. Benioff later told David S. Cohen, “He’s not likable. You’re not going to have a pet-the-dog scene with Achilles. It is something I had to resist.”
Mavis Gary, the main character in Young Adult, has a dog. It’s one of those little obnoxious types. She puts it out on the patio to eat its food. She stuffs it into her purse to take on her trip back to her hometown. She leaves it in the hotel room with only a plastic diaper to poop in. But she never, never, ever pets it. Thank you, Diablo Cody.
Mavis is not a likable person. She writes Young Adult novels under a pseudonym. Her apartment is a mess. She drinks too much. And she dates a boring guy whom she is not afraid to show us, if not him, how boring he is, even if he is about to go off to do good deeds overseas. And that’s just before the credits. Then she really gets going. Getting an email that her old high school flame Buddy and his wife Beth have had their first child, Mavis goes back to her hometown determined to break up Buddy and Beth and get back together with Buddy because, well, she thinks they were always meant to be together. Ouch, she is delusional as well.
This is the character we are supposed to follow through a movie? Yes. And we do. Why? Because when Mavis is on-screen, stuff happens. And that above all is what you really need in a main character in a film. Not being a fan of southern belles, I would not like Scarlett O’Hara in real life, but by God, when she’s on-screen, you can’t not watch her. Mavis is like that, only more so, and Cody makes it work. When Mavis arrives back home, the first person she runs into is Matt Freehauf. They were in high school together, but she does not recognize him until she sees his crutch. Ah, he’s the “Hate Crime Guy,” who was beat up by a bunch of jocks who thought he was gay. Oh, we are going to have a sentimental gay best friend for her. Nope, not only is he not gay, he is just as sharp-tongued as she is, and not afraid to call her on her bullshit. Hardly a best friend, but we like them together because they bounce off each other in funny ways. She meets Buddy and they have a drink, not in a dark make-out bar, but in a well-lighted sports bar. He is clueless about what she is back in town for. Her cover story is that she is handling some real estate deal, which leads us to suspect her parents are dead, since she is staying in a motel. Guess who drives up to her on the street a little later in the picture? Her mom. Mom and Dad are still both alive and well. Mavis is upset they still have a picture of her wedding (not to Buddy), given that the marriage failed, but Mom remembers it was a very nice wedding. Typical clueless parental units, and we can see why Cody does not have Mavis spend more time with them.
Buddy invites Mavis to see Beth play in a rock band called Nipple Compression, a group Beth and other mothers formed to get them out of the house. One of the other mothers says to a third, on seeing Mavis, “Psycho Prom Queen Bitch,” and we believe her. Beth, on the other hand, is a charming character who works with emotionally stunted kids. And she and Buddy are very happy. Mavis is not convinced. Buddy invites her to the baby-naming ceremony at their house. One of the great running bits is watching Mavis prepare for each meeting with Buddy: different nail polish for each event, different clothes. I bet a male writer would have not have come up with those details. So Mavis goes to the ceremony, and we are on the edge of our seats, because we know it’s going to be a train wreck, a term several critics have used to describe Mavis. She gets Buddy in a room alone and tells him that she knows he feels the way she does. He doesn’t. Farther out on the edge of our seats because we know no good will come of that. And we are right. Mavis makes a total fool of herself in the front yard, with all the people she knows standing there. We find out here that Mavis had been pregnant by Buddy (he knew) and had a miscarriage. We also find out that it was not Buddy who insisted she come to the ceremony, it was Beth. She felt sorry for Mavis, about the worst thing you can say to Mavis.
So Mavis stomps off and goes to see Matt. And they have sex. But, but, she’s gorgeous and he’s…well, fat and crippled. And he told her earlier that not only did the beating hurt his leg, but also his genitals so he can only piss or come sideways. That’s a great detail, but unfortunately Cody never figures out a way to make that pay off in the scene, as we now get it, of Matt and Mavis. So what about when they wake up in the morning and talk about it? Well, they don’t. Mavis wakes up first and is sneaking out of the house when she is caught by Matt’s sister Sandra. We met Sandra earlier and she is one of many people, like Matt, who idolized Mavis not only when she was in high school but later when she went off to the big city (Minneapolis) and became a famous author. Well, she’s not famous but still, Sandra and Matt are the sort of people who never got out of town and idolize those who do. At this point that’s enough for Mavis. There are still people who admire her, but she has learned no lessons, had no “Aww!” moment.
More than The United States of Tara (see US #43), this is the riskiest script Cody has ever done. If the balance is not perfect, she’ll lose us. She doesn’t lose us. She also has the advantage of having Charlize Theron as Mavis. Theron told David Letterman that the director, Jason Reitman, had said he wanted only her for the part because he could see Mavis in her. Theron said she was not sure that was a compliment, but the role is certainly within her range, and I think a trickier role and performance than her award winning part in Monster (2003). We cringe at what Mavis does, but she is so interesting to watch that we like her as well, at least a little bit. And the film takes advantage of Theron’s beauty, although often we see her in day-old makeup. Like Matt and Sandra, we sort of want to see her get what she wants because she is physically gorgeous. It is a peculiarity of movies, and real life as well, that we assume that good-looking people are good. We really know that is not true, but we still pretend that it is, at least in the movies.
Here is another way the script is risky. The film doesn’t have a sentimental bone in its body about small towns or high school. Of what other American film can you say that? Mavis’s hometown is no Bedford Falls. There are some nice people there (Beth, Mavis’s clueless parents) and some not so nice (Matt), but it is not the American dream. Mavis is, like way too many Americans, sentimental about high school, but the film is not. The series of Young Adult novels Mavis is writing is set in the fictional high school Waverly Place. At first this just seems like a mildly interesting detail. Midway through the film we (and I think Mavis) discover from a bookstore clerk that the series is being cancelled. So the book she is writing throughout the film is the final book in the series, and Mavis’s voiceovers from the book near the end match the “end” of her high school life with Buddy. Nice subtle writing.