Young Adult: Everyone Gets old. Not Everyone Grows Up.

Most of the time I cringe when I hear someone offer this advice: “You have to do what makes you happy.” I’ve seen too many people follow this counsel to its logical conclusion, only to be hurt and lost. Happiness is fleeting. What makes us individually happy is rarely a way to measure a good life. When we offer advice like this, I wonder if we are more concerned that the person needing the advice avoids pain and feels better about him or herself. Are you happy in this relationship? Are you happy in your job? Are you happy in your $50,000 convertible? Is happiness really the issue here?

If we are willing to be sincere, however, taking time to reflect on the meaning of happiness and its connection to a life well lived is often a helpful and healthy exercise. Young Adult is a movie that invites viewers to consider two important, life-shaping questions: What is happiness? What is the essence of a good life? Mavis (Charlize Theron) has been living life based on a script that hasn’t worked. She was the most popular girl in high school, had gone off to college and then moved to the big city to make something of herself. Freedom was Mavis’s dream. Free from the confines of a small town, free from the expectations of her parents, free from the shackles and burden of being married or raising a family. Free to do whatever she wanted. No restrictions. No restraints. Her occupation as a ghost writer for a young adult fiction series gave her the flexibility and presumably enough income to live her dream. But the dream was slowly becoming a nightmare. The story that was supposed to bring liberation began to enslave her.

Mavis learns that her high school sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), had gotten married and had recently had a child. Buddy worked for his father’s business, still lived in the town in which he grew up, and now was producing offspring. It was too much for Mavis to take. How could Buddy live such a boring story? How could he lose control of his life in such a tragic way? There was only one thing for Mavis to do. She had to save him. She devised a plan to seduce Buddy away from his wife and child.

“Everyone gets old. Not everyone grows up.” The movie’s subtitle says it all. Critics have described Young Adult as “hilariously awkward,” “darkly funny,” “wryly amusing,” and “a cringefest in the best way possible.” My guess is that screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) was hoping for this kind of response.

Young Adult is a movie worth watching, especially for those charged with helping adolescents grow into healthy adulthood. It forces us to think more deeply about the meaning of a good life, the importance of community, and the cultural narratives that shape our desires and imaginations. There is growing concern that young people are taking too long to “grow up.” Social scientists have named it extended adolescence and emerging adulthood. Churches seem to be perplexed about how to “reach” people in their 20s and 30s. Young Adult is a gift to those who wish to better understand our cultural moment and the hopes and fears of our young neighbors. It isn’t an easy movie to watch, to be sure. It is, after all, a cringe-fest. It probably won’t make you happy. But being uncomfortable isn’t always a bad thing. Oftentimes it moves us toward empathy and action.