Following the potentially game-changing Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman (admirably) returns to a smaller, indie-flavoured milieu, re-teaming with his Juno scribe Diablo Cody to bring another highly memorable female character to life, and in the process, managing to create his strongest work to date.

We first catch thirty-something divorcee Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) in a pretty disheveled state. Moping around her unkempt apartment the morning after yet another boozing night, she’s furiously quaffing down a two litre bottle of Diet Coke and nonchalantly peeling off her now firmly-affixed chicken fillets. Ghost author of a series of young adult fiction novels (the popularity of which is increasingly on the wane) she tends to live her life like the superficial adolescent characters she writes about. Making a somewhat arbitrary decision to head back to the small Midwest town where she grew up to win back high school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson), she’s under the horrendously mistaken assumption that he’s still deeply in love with her, when in reality, he’s happily married with a young child.

Back in town and steadily concocting her nefarious scheme, she bumps into another figure from her school days, Matt (Patton Oswald). Semi-debilitated after a violent teenage incident and stuck eking out a modest living as a bookkeeper in the very existence Mavis despises, he unwittingly becomes a sounding board for the writer, despite her apparent indignation towards him and the life he leads.

It’s early days yet in this year’s cinematic calendar, but already here’s a film which may find itself sitting comfortably within the 2012 top ten lists for many. Young Adult is a fantastic character-driven look at adulthood in arrested development and felled by misjudged nostalgia, all wrapping up in a subtly dark comedic outlook, and courageously offering up a lead protagonist who is as pretty much as far from likable as can possibly be.

It also represents the opportunity for the great Charlize Theron to showcase her considerable acting talents once more. She’s able to effortlessly disappear into the role, and similar to her turn as real-life serial killer Eileen Wornos in Monster, it relies on her ditching any vanity as a performer and revealing a delusional, often extremely unpleasant persona. Make no mistake, Mavis is as thoughtless and insensitive as they come, but just as she was able to humanise Wornos, Theron does an excellent job here of keeping the audience engaged despite her character’s egregious flaws.

Some of the credit here must be attributed to Cody’s thoughtful and restrained script. There’s a noticeable maturity to her work, and she doesn’t go for the obvious (albeit witty) one-liners and put-downs which characterised Juno. Where her teen creation often felt more like a cipher to project her own skewed perspective and musings of the world, Mavis is a much more believable flesh and blood creation.

The quality writing also extends beyond the central character and allows Oswalt (historically associated with broader material) the opportunity to really shine and give his female co-star serious competition in the acting stakes. Matt is a sad and somewhat tragic figure, yet Oswalt manages to gain the audience’s sympathy without ever pandering to them, and somehow his character is able to bring out the best in Mavis, offering the emotional reliance she sorely needs. It’s a shame his face won’t be seen amongst the Best Supporting actors, come Oscar night. He deserves to be there.

More so than any of his previous films, Reitman proves to be very much a disciple of the Alexander Payne school of filmmaking here (a point which is further established by Payne regular Rolf Kent once again lending his skills to the filmmaker) and he’s interested in capturing revealing little character moments throughout, adding texture and a richness to the narrative. This delicate attention to detail is beautifully illustrated during the opening credits where Mavis keeps rewinding the cassette player in her car to the beginning of her favourite track (on an old mixtape from the Buddy era) before the song has had the chance to play out to the end. Everything you need to know about Mavis is served up right there.

Populated with a fine selection of 90’s indie rock from both sides of the Atlantic which manages to cast a halcyon glow over that decade (a small wonder in itself), Young Adult is a highly-accomplished piece of work from a creative trio who’s bold and risky creative decisions have paid off handsomely.