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Jason Reitman: Squirming in the dark with Dr Feel-bad

There's a price to pay for his happy childhood, and his characters foot the bill. Jonathan Romney meets Hollywood's master of discomfort

Lately we've become used to expecting nothing remarkable from mainstream American cinema. So it comes as a thrill when Hollywood produces something impressive. And when that something also dares to be uncomfortable, you start to hope that maybe there's some small renaissance going on. If that's over-optimistic, this spring's output suggests at least that intelligent, adult American movies are not the extinct species we feared.

Take Alexander Payne's comedy-drama The Descendants: George Clooney's protagonist discovers that his wife, in hospital in a coma, had been cheating on him. When Clooney sits down at her bedside, you expect tender declarations; instead, he showers her with invective. You cringe, and thrill at the film's chutzpah.

Or take Young Adult from director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, creators of the teen-pregnancy hit Juno. It's the story of 37-year-old Mavis (Charlize Theron), who makes her living writing teen paperback romances. An attractive, outwardly confident woman, she's really a psychological mess, with a morbidly nostalgic attachment to her years of teen-princess glory, and a deluded dream of winning back her old high-school beau. Young Adult is an extremely dark character study with a protagonist who starts off unsympathetic, and becomes worse – not bad for a film which initially seems to be a Jennifer Aniston-style romcom. The effect – I remarked to director Reitman in London recently – is magnificently uncomfortable.

" 'Magnificently uncomfortable'!" whooped Reitman. "That's the poster quote!" 'Feel-bad' is the order of the day in Young Adult, he confirmed; he wanted to deny audiences the routine emotional rewards of Hollywood comedy. "You think you're watching a movie about a woman who's going to learn the value of not being a narcissist, and how to grow up, and all this stuff. When characters change on screen, it makes you feel better about yourself, you think, 'Oh I change too, I'm constantly becoming a better person.' And when she doesn't – and in such an emotionally violent way – hopefully it's so jarring that it stays with you."

Reitman has form when it comes to making audiences uneasy – and even uncertain about what his films are saying. Reitman's 2005 debut Thank You For Smoking was about a tobacco industry lobbyist, but didn't say whether he was a hero or a villain. And the urbanely troubling Clooney vehicle Up in the Air was at once a study of the effects of recession on the executive lifestyle, and a desolate portrait of loneliness. I've seen the film hailed as politically challenging, and attacked as reactionary. But ambivalence is a quality that Reitman prizes. He says the constant among his films – he's scripted two out of four – is "a lack of judgement on characters that are usually judged.

"I hate movies that tell people what to think. I'm proud that Democrats thought Thank You For Smoking was their film and Republicans thought it was theirs. I'm proud that pro-choice people thought Juno was their film and pro-life people thought it was theirs. Because that's all a reflection of who they are: the movie serves a purpose of highlighting the viewer."

While the messages are elusive, Reitman likes to be clear when it comes to the films' emotional effect. That, he says, is what a director's job consists of. "Can you design a Rorschach test that's going to make everyone feel something every time – and that looks like a Rorschach test? It's easy to show a picture of a kitten or a car accident. The question is, how abstract can you get and still get the audience to feel something when they don't know what's happening to them?"

Young Adult highlights a topic that often baffles non-Americans: the way that US school culture seems to pin people down to social roles that they then spend their lives trying to escape from (in the case of Young Adult's key characters, Prom Queen, Alpha Jock and Nerd Loser). Reitman insists that the film is not inspired by its maker's experiences. "My high-school years were so mediocre – I moved out when I was 16 and started living with my girlfriend who was 10 years older. Apart from that, I was just a video nerd."

Reitman, 34, still retains traces of the video nerd. He's affable, thoughtful in a fast-talking, agitated way, a touch whiny of voice. Born in Montreal, he's the son of Ivan Reitman, director of such entirely untroubling hits as Ghostbusters and Kindergarten Cop. Reitman Jr grew up watching "the same movies that every kid watched in the Eighties – Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and action films like Predator and Die Hard". The people who later inspired him to direct were the likes of Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, the Coens and especially Alexander Payne: "He's on the road to being our generation's Billy Wilder."

Reitman is often asked whether he considered making lighter films like his dad. "My father wants the audience to walk out of the theatre happier and better people. It's never interested me," he laughs. The reason for their differing attitudes is simple, he says. His Czech-born father is the child of Holocaust survivors: "When he was four, my father and grandparents hid under the floorboards of a boat and snuck out of Communist Czechoslovakia where my grandfather was going to be arrested, and he arrives in Canada with nothing, doesn't speak English. Of course my father wants people to be happy!" In contrast, says Reitman, "I grew up in Beverly Hills."

So has it become a good time to make more challenging films in America? No, says Reitman, "it's close to impossible. There are only a few of us who are allowed to. Alexander [Payne] gets to because of Sideways, I get to because of Juno, Soderbergh gets to but he doesn't want to any more." But Reitman places a lot of faith in the rising independents who beat the economics with cheap digital cameras, people like Lynn Shelton (Humpday) and the Duplass brothers, whose forthcoming Jeff Who Lives At Home Reitman has produced.

Reitman's next directing project is a departure. Labor Day stars Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, and is "a fairly old-fashioned romantic drama with a lot of tension. No humour whatsoever," Reitman says. Let's hope that really is the poster quote.

'Young Adult' is out on 3 February