What I should not do is review this movie. (Or any movie, really, but that’s another matter.)
This town is small enough that one of the audience came to the same coffee shop afterwards. “it’s not about a young adult writer,” she was saying emphatically to the barista, who was I suppose curious or pretending to be for the sake of small talk. It is about a young adult writer, but I was caught in the same identification that she was. “It’s not just high school” she said, eyes widening in confidence, “people--young people--really do get stuck like that, and they’re not psychotic.” Neither is Theron, despite the absurd character, Mavis, she is supposed to be playing. She knows better, but she does it all anyway: chases after her high school sweetheart, keeps but only loves her fluffy, purse-sized dog as much as she loves him, and drinks coca-cola every morning. It's supposed to be darkly funny, deadpan, but is instead depressingly real to people like me, and, apparently, someone else.
I imagined a crisis of imagination leading to this script. The author (”author,” Mavis always corrects anyone who calls her a “writer”) can’t write, as her protagonist cannot in the beginning. Fed up, the author decides to not filter anything, to do the authorial “fuck it” that her protagonist does with life. She sends Mavis off to do the least imaginitive thing possible, for her: get her high school boyfriend back. This is the author’s bare imaginitive act, while the rest is filled in with unhappy vignettes of mundanity: sending the dog out to feed from a plastic container that she never cleans up from the balcony (the camera shows us a pile), not connecting with but cynically sleeping with her date anyway, playing the same tired song on her mix tape over and over as she drives to her home town (which is tiresomely metaphoric). What was startling to me was the misery of interstate travel through small towns. Shot after shot of off-ramp chain eateries, mostly empty parking lots. This sort of imaginationlessness that Ashland, with its relative wealth, has relegated to the edges of town.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” I told her, “but then I don’t hate Ashland as much as she does Mercury.” Ashland sucks less than Mercury. It’s more bearable, and complicates the upward mobility narrative blackly played out in this movie. Even the terribly cruel and self-loathing probably wouldn’t say that only nothings live here, as one tragic and ignored character does to our blonde heroine. What I said to the other moviegoer was that there seem to be two endings: the conventional ending in which everything is wrapped up in the last ten minutes: She decides, somewhat bewilderingly, to move on with her life. She gets into her broken car, eyes sunken with makeup meant to amplify a lack of makeup, but changed for the better. What this neat ending doesn't deal with is what I called the other ending, but it's not really an ending: After sleeping with the self-described "fat geek," she comes upstairs in her wine-stained getup and sits at the kitchen table with his sister, who idolizes her. The sister gives her a pep talk that consists of Mavis being better than everyone in Mercury. She, after all, went to the city, and writes things. Everyone who lives in Mercury is meant to, because they are nothing. She eats this up, smiling, and is convinced to go back to Minneapolis. "Take me with you," the sister pleads. "You're good here, Sandra, you're good," Mavis says, and leaves.
It figures that I would think that it’s too bad that the “having a life” option in this movie is marriage. The lifeless are single; the living are married with children.
It was not the sort of movie during which you have to keep from peeing your pants because you laugh so hard. But then, thankfully, it was also not the sort of movie in which characters regularly pee their pants to make you laugh. The most it ever roused the audience to was a sharp chuckle. More often I breathed out loudly through my nose in that barely laugh that's like a whisper. We all began laughing because, I guess, we expected a comedy to be funny. At some point we stopped straining.