Movie review by Greg Carlson
Arriving after a sporadically produced stage play and an unaired television pilot, “Youth in Revolt,” the Miguel Arteta adaptation of C.D. Payne’s comic coming-of-age writings is a film so wispy it almost blows away when you sigh from your theatre seat. It is also often funny and generally entertaining. Michael Cera makes a fetching Nick Twisp, upped in age from just shy of fourteen to a more sexually mature sixteen. Opening with a vigorous masturbation sequence that intrudes over the studio logos, “Youth in Revolt” announces ribald intentions that never convincingly materialize, despite plenty of hilarious conversation about all things carnal.
Twisp is another smart, self-deprecating, hyper self-aware teen, the type who listens to vintage Sinatra on vinyl and rents foreign language Criterion Collection DVDs. Disgusted by the sex lives of his divorced parents and their partners, Nick fantasizes about losing his virginity, and his lustfulness turns to obsession when he falls under the spell of Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a well-read Francophile whose quick wit and charisma instantly overpower Nick. Sheeni calls out Nick when he mixes up Mizoguchi with Ozu, and despite living under the watchful eyes of her conservative, religious parents, she emerges as someone with her own designs on life beyond the Ukiah trailer park where she first meets Nick.
Despite Sheeni’s objectified position as Nick’s inamorata, Doubleday capitalizes on her opportunities, and will leave many viewers convinced that she would have made a principal character and protagonist every bit as interesting as the young Mr. Twisp. Doubleday inscribes notes of condescension and aloofness in her interpretation of Sheeni, and the performer navigates the character’s detachment and frankness with dexterity. “Youth in Revolt” is less interesting when Sheeni is not onscreen, and relative newcomer Doubleday will hopefully turn up in more features in the near future.
Among Payne fans, there will be much debate concerning the extent to which Nick’s alter ego Francois Dillinger, a wolfish, Belmondo-esque hustler who would like to tickle Sheeni’s belly button “from the inside,” succeeds, as Cera is called upon to play opposite himself in several special effects-driven scenes in the style of “The Parent Trap” and the more recent “Moon.” Nick’s other persona and feminine side, Carlotta Ulansky, sees Cera cross-dressing to get close to Sheeni, but the ruse is played broadly and briefly, like many other outrageous gags that Arteta stages but neglects to develop. Interstitial animations in different styles also contribute to the anarchic, grab-bag approach favored by the filmmaker.
For a film that purports to traffic in teenage rebellion, “Youth in Revolt” sticks with a familiar game plan. Several set pieces, including dormitory shenanigans, a ballet of automotive destruction, and a Thanksgiving feast that sees a host of authority figures under the influence of hallucinogens, have already been done to death in sit-coms and teensploitation. “Youth in Revolt” is always at its best when focused on Nick’s droll, biting observations about the injustices and frustrations of his daily life, and Cera’s skillful comic timing elicits many laughs. The movie may not do much to change perceptions of its lead actor as an awkward man-child, but Michael Cera does it as well as anyone.
This review was published originally for Southpawfilmworks the week of 1/11/10.