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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Hollywood is in award season overdrive; there are potential Oscar nominees everywhere you look. And that includes two actresses who already have Oscars, in movies opening this weekend: Charlize Theron, in the comedy "Young Adult"; and Tilda Swinton, in the drama "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Our film critic Bob Mondello says their performances are the best thing about both pictures.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Forget Kevin; we need to talk about his mom. As played by Tilda Swinton, Eva has been just barely holding it together almost from the moment her son was born. He cried so much as an infant that to escape the sound of his shrieking, Eva took him for walks near construction sites.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN")

MONDELLO: As Kevin grows up, he stops crying and starts doing other things - mostly unpleasant, often directed at his mother. But he's a cagey kid by his teens and no one else, including her husband, understands why Eva is frightened of him, even when accidents start to endanger his younger sister.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN")

TILDA SWINTON: (as Eva Khatchadourian) You were supposed to be looking after her.

JOHN C. REILLY: (as Franklin) We just don't want you to blame yourself.

EZRA MILLER: (as Kevin) Mom, I don't - I never said I didn't.

SWINTON: (as Eva Khatchadourian) She's going to need a glass eye, Kevin.

REILLY: (as Franklin) So we would appreciate you looking out for her and any name-calling...

MILLER: (as Kevin) You do not really remember being a kid much, do you, that - so you're just going to have to suck it up.

MONDELLO: Though the film leaps around in time - that scene, for instance, is a flashback - you're never in doubt that Kevin's a sociopath. Grieving parents scream at Eva; kids splatter red paint on her house. You'll wonder about the whats and whys, but "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is less a horror story about a malicious kid than a study of his mom's increasing panic that it might be her less-than-motherly feelings for him that have turned him monstrous. Director Lynne Ramsay underlines Eva's fears with a lot of blood-red imagery: glasses of Cabernet, oozing jelly sandwiches, a supermarket panic attack in front of a wall of tomato soup cans.

You'd get the point without all the pointing. But the film's bluntness doesn't diminish the power of the nature-versus-nurture questions Eva's asking herself, or of Swinton's harrowing portrait of parental guilt.

Guilt may be the one thing not felt by Charlize Theron's home-wrecker Mavis in the comedy "Young Adult." Mavis is a former prom queen who at 37, makes her living writing teen fiction and seems to think she can actually live the sort of win-my-high-school-boyfriend-back storyline that she might write for one of her characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOUNG ADULT")

CHARLIZE THERON: (as Mavis Gary) Here's the deal: Buddy Slade and I are meant to be together, and I'm here to get him back.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I'm pretty sure he's married with a kid on the way.

THERON: (as Mavis Gary) No, kid's here. I'm cool with it. I mean, I've got baggage, too.

MONDELLO: Mavis' peers may have graduated to jobs and marriage, but she still sees the world in terms of cliques and boyfriends. It was a birth announcement from Buddy and his wife that prompted a return to her hometown, and some ill-advised fantasizing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOUNG ADULT")

THERON: (as Mavis Gary) You can come to the city with me, like we always planned.

PATRICK WILSON: (as Buddy Slade) Mavis, I'm a married man.

THERON: (as Mavis Gary) I know. We can beat this thing - together.

MONDELLO: Charlize Theron won her Oscar for "Monster," a much darker character study than this film, and screenwriter Diablo Cody won hers for "Juno," a much sunnier comedy. So it makes sense that "Young Adult" feels like a mash-up of styles and genres. In a less acid romp, Mavis would learn life lessons in the final reel, but director Jason Reitman makes it a point not to let her off the hook. The big-city life she's carved out for herself may look glamorous to the folks back home, but she's miserable: her expensive condo a pigsty; her career a joke; her social and romantic prospects nonexistent. And all of it is her fault.

She's arrived at what ought to be maturity as ugly on the inside as she is gorgeous on the outside. She is also - and this is what makes "Young Adult" catch you up short - hauntingly alone at a point in life when she didn't expect to be. You could also say that about Tilda Swinton's Eva in "We Need to Talk About Kevin." The films could hardly be more different - one tragic, the other comic - but at center, they're both about the same, modern malady: the life that hasn't turned out as planned. I'm Bob Mondello.

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