"People seem happy with so little." So reveals Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) to her fellow, less popular class alumna, Sandra Freehauf (Collette Wolfe). Of course, what Mavis is referring to has nothing to do with material possessions, but with the concept of how content people are to settle into the rut of marriage, children, and weekly jaunts to a strip mall and restaurant chain.
For Mavis, getting out of Mercury, Minnesota after high school was always inevitable. What was not inevitable, however, was returning to rescue her ex-boyfriend from what she views as a prison-like existence. Her ire for the town from whence she came is palpable through the screen as we see her examining layer upon layer of corporate filth, including an all-in-one KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut--which she later finds solace in during a moment of bleakness and desperation.
As the author (and she will correct you on that point if called a writer) of a young adult series with a main character who she bases off of her own high school successes (beautiful, prom queen, etc.), it would be something of an understatement to say that Mavis lives in the past in spite of being fiercely opposed to the people who ended up staying in her town. While she lives in her own apartment in Minneapolis (a city everyone from Mercury shamelessly calls "the Mini Apple"), has an enchanting dog named Dolce, and seems to have no difficulty finding the company of men, director Jason Reitman (who famously teamed with screenwriter Diablo Cody for her debut, Juno) visually depicts her ennui with incisive and subtle details.
Trapped in an endless cycle of waking up hungover, guzzling Diet Coke, and half-interestedly watching every show on E!, it is clear that Mavis is missing something from her life. What she ultimately decides that something is turns out to by Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), her beloved ex.
Making the excuse of being in Mercury for a real estate transaction, Mavis suggests that she and Buddy meet for drinks. When he declines meeting her until the next day, Mavis gets to talking to another one of her former classmates at the local bar, Matt Freehauf. Though, at first, Mavis has absolutely no idea who he is, her memory is refreshed when she notices his cane propped up against the edge of the bar. "You're that hate crime guy," she suddenly remembers. Evidently, because most of the jocks assumed Matt was gay, they took him into the woods and beat the shit out of him. So, in most ways, Matt is forced to constantly live with the horrid memories of high school for the remainder of his life. Hence, a sort of mutant bond is formed between Mavis and Matt, both of them wanting to return to a certain point in high school when they were "at their best."
When Mavis becomes painfully aware that her plan to reclaim Buddy from his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), is failing, she has a public meltdown in front of Buddy's house at his daughter's naming ceremony. She finds refuge at Matt's house, leading to the culmination of the release each of them can provide for one another (yes, that means sex). The next morning, Mavis staggers into the kitchen and ends up talking to Matt's sister, Sandra (who worships her with the enthusiasm of a religious acolyte). Reflecting on how everyone else from high school seems to have grown up, Mavis muses, "I need to change." Sandra refutes her by saying, "No you don't... Everyone here is nothing. They might as well be dead." And, let's be blunt, people who live between New York and L.A. are kind of just there for consumerist purposes, so the woman has a point. In any case, this puts Mavis back on her self-confident path, prompting her to return immediately to the city and finally complete the last book in her series. The concluding line in the book reads, "Life, here I come." It is an overt reflection of Mavis' own resolve to keep living as she wants to, regardless of the pressure to "mature."