YOUNG ADULT: There's something pathetic and sad about a person whose life peaked during their high school years. It's a realization that a former teenage "queen" (Charlize Theron) arrives at when her alcoholic, solitary lifestyle and waning professional career as an uncredited writer of vampire novels (A shot, no doubt, at TWILIGHT author Stephanie Meyer) no longer seems to be working for her.

Her convoluted solution is to return to her mid-sized hometown to win back her old boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) who's married and a new father. What ensues is a fascinating character study of a person rational enough to know that she's an alcoholic who's "a little crazy" but delusional enough to not see that her plan is a recipe for disaster.

Theron's (MONSTER) ability to play someone so thoroughly unlikeable yet elicit a measure of sympathy for her is why I think she's one of the more underrated actresses. She's matched by an excellent supporting performance from comic Patton Oswalt (BIG FAN) as a former high school acquaintance crippled emotionally and physically by a gang attack in his youth. Both persons drive the movie toward a climax that is unusual yet somewhat believable onscreen.

Surprising narrative turns, though, are a trademark of director Jason Reitman (UP IN THE AIR) and screenwriter Diablo Cody, who collaborated on JUNO (2007), which took its share of unexpected directions. One thing the film doesn't do is compromise since Theron's character emerges more grounded in her own reality but still remains someone we wouldn't wish to hang out with at any stage of our life.

CRITIC'S GRADE: B

EXCELLENT MOVIES TO WATCH IF YOUR NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTION IS ...

... TO BECOME A BETTER PERSON: ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000), MILLIONS (2005), SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993)

... TO LOSE WEIGHT: PUMPING IRON (1977), ROCKY (1976), SUPER SIZE ME (2004)

... TO CUT DOWN/QUIT DRINKING: CLEAN AND SOBER (1988), DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962), LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)

... TO QUIT SMOKING: COLD TURKEY (1971), THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (2006)