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YOUTH IN REVOLT, 2010
Like most teens, young Nick Twisp (Cera) is ruled by his libido. And from the recesses of a trailer park in Northern California, Twisp concocts a plan -- make that multiple schemes -- to lose his virginity to a local girl, the precocious Sheeni Saunders (Doubleday).
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It used to be, a long, long time ago, that coming of age meant going out on the big hunt; and later on, going off to fight in some war or other. Blood it seemed was the ultimate demarcation between child- and adulthood. But the modern, industrialized world doesn’t quite have the place for that anymore; we fight fewer wars and we need fewer men to do so, and our hunter-gatherer instinct stops at the grocery store.
But boys still need to become men, if for no other reason than to give writers something to write about. And if blood is out of the picture, something else equally important and sacred has to take its place.
Which brings us to Nick Twisp (Michael Cera). He has the same problem every 17-year-old boy who ever was has had to live through: sex. And because he is a 17-year-old boy the steps necessary to deal with that problem still seem vaguely foreign and terrifying, since they require putting so much of yourself at the mercy of another human being
The human being in question is absurdly-intelligent and mature Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) in Miguel Arteta’s (“The Good Girl”) adaptation of C.D. Payne’s “Youth in Revolt.” Once upon a time Arteta showed some real promise that got hidden behind a great deal of self-importance. Independent film has a tendency to revel in its ‘freedom from the status quo’ without ever quite realizing both how condescending that is and how thoroughly un-entertaining being condescended to is.
That sort of thinking would seem to be a match made in heaven for Payne’s often extremely snooty work, but Arteta has thrown off a lot of the blanket of righteousness in exchange for some genuinely mainstream entertainment. The result is a bit of Frankenstein of a film that lurches about some but ultimately gets where it needs to go.
After an unfortunate incident with some sailor’s and a faulty Chevy Nova, Nick, his mother (Jean Smart) and her boyfriend (Zach Galifanakis, currently the hardest working man in show business) are forced to hide out in northern California for a summer until the heat blows over. It’s there that Sheeni comes into his life, and with return to Oakland eminent he vows to do whatever it takes to return to her forever.
There are few bits of indie bushwah that Arteta and screenwriter Gustin Nash (“Charlie Bartlett”) can’t seem to entirely escape; Nick and Sheeni establish their intellectual cred through their love of Frank Sinatra and French New Wave films, having conversations about the merits of Godard versus Ozu that even pretentious film critics don’t have.
But for the most, “Youth in Revolt” is so charming it’s easy to forgive its faults.
A lot of that has to do Cera, who has to pretty much carry the entire film on his shoulders and does a fairly able job of it. It will be unfortunate when the day comes that he can’t believable carry off the shy teenage boy shtick anymore, because he is becoming fairly ironclad type cast in it. “Youth in Revolt’s” early scenes are a good reminder why as he greets the world around him with weary passive-aggressive resentment. And then comes his transformation.
Unable to conjure the rebellion necessary to get himself thrown out of his mother’s house, Nick creates his own evil twin – Francois Dillinger – a mustache wearing, cigarette smoking epitome of what Sheeni (a major Francophile) would in theory find most desirable. Francois is capable of doing everything Nick can’t (and Cera is normally not allowed to), like setting fire to half of Berkley or faking his own death.
The best part of Payne’s novel was always its absurd sense of humor, and Arteta has maintained as much of that as possible, with a lot of Francois’ help. He’s also surrounded Cera with a strong supporting cast, many of whom like Ray Liotta or Fred Willard only get a few moments but who are indispensible from the finished product, the way a great ensemble should be.
It does tend to be on the episodic side with a build-release, build-release feel to it, but the release is usually worth it even if it leaves the climax feeling a bit weak. Part of that is because at the end Arteta is ultimately more interested in entertaining this go around, so he has to try and find a happy ending out of a really over the top dilemma. It doesn’t feel particularly true.
Coming of age is something everyone has to go through, which makes it perfect fodder for storytelling. Unfortunately it also means a lot of storytellers feel compelled to tell a personal, individual coming of age story that’s ultimately never going to be that. Its very universality is a mark against it. But “Youth in Revolt” is just charming and strange enough to break a little bit from the pack, and that is usually much easier said than done.