It’s always kind of sad to hear adults tell teenagers to enjoy high school because it’s the best time of one’s life. If that’s the case, math nerds, band geeks and, well, basically anyone who isn’t a jock or a cheerleader (and maybe even some of those) don’t have much to look forward to. But for Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), high school was the best time of her life, and 20 years later, she hasn’t really moved on, ghostwriting soapy young-adult novels from a Minneapolis high-rise apartment decorated like a college dorm room.
Divorced, and with her signature series Waverly Prep coming to an end, Mavis is pushed over the edge when she receives a birth announcement from the wife of her first love. The mean girl—or, as she’s referred to by a one-time classmate, the “psycho bitch prom queen”—returns to her hometown of Mercury, Minn., to win back her high-school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson, appropriately vanilla).
Theron proved in her Oscar-winning role in Monster that she can play as ugly as she is beautiful, and here she demonstrates that transformation, for Mavis is a hot mess when she’s not trying to woo Buddy, and the day-long prep it takes to get from before to after entails grody pedicures, faux hairpieces and tone-deaf outfits. (She wears a little black dress to a franchise sports bar.) Mavis is sexy and clever but also oblivious and cruel, and Theron embraces all of it, shoving her inevitable awkward humiliation at us. We can’t turn away, and as a result, finally, we see her.
Before Mavis can connect with Buddy, though, she crosses paths with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), another high-school classmate who still uses a cane due to injuries he sustained from a beating he took as a teenager for being gay. (His attackers were mistaken.) Although he occupies now, as he did then, the opposite end of the popularity hierarchy, his cynical attitude is much the same as Mavis’, and over drinks she shares her secret mission to seduce and save Buddy from his boring suburban existence.
Oswalt is utterly disarming as an accountant who still lives with his sister and reassembles action figure parts for fun. Part man, part boy, he distills “Mos Eisley Special Reserve” bourbon in his garage. He’s also fully aware that he has no defense against the charms of Mavis, despite (or because of?) how awful she is. Buddy’s wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) is the drummer in a band made up of moms (“Oh my god, embarrassing,” Mavis cracks before realizing Buddy kind of digs it), and when they dedicate a cover of what Mavis thought was her and Buddy’s song to him, it’s Matt who sees her pain, palpable and real. He’s the only one who views her with empathy, not pity.
Despite Matt’s strong dissuasion, Mavis moves forward with her plan, which culminates in an epic meltdown with what seems like the whole town watching. Cue the change of heart, right? Not quite. Re-teaming with her Juno director Jason Reitman, Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody refreshingly favors sour over sweet (with dialogue that’s just as snarky as in her breakthrough script, but without all the pop-culture quippage): Mavis does find some redemption in a pep talk with an unexpected theme from Matt’s sister Sandra (Collette Wolfe, in a small but indelible turn), but her takeaway is more fitting and real than any Hollywood rom-com ending.