A film review by Craig J. Koban January 21, 2010

YOUTH IN REVOLT jjj
½ 

2010, R, 93 mins.

 

Nick Twisp: Michael Cera / Sheeni: Portia Doubleday / George Twisp: Steve Buscemi / Jerry: Zach Galifianakis / Lance: Ray Liotta / Estelle Twisp: Jean Smart / Mr. Ferguson: Fred Willard / Paul Saunders: Justin Long / Mr. Saunders: M. Emmet Walsh / Mrs. Saunders: Mary Kay Place

Directed by Miguel Arteta / Written by Gustin Nash, based on the novel Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp by C.D. Payne.

Far too many short sighted critics have criticized Michael Cera for playing the same essential character in all of his films, from JUNO to SUPERBAD to NICK AND NORA’S INFINITE PLAYLIST and now to YOUTH IN REVOLT: 

The timid, geeky, and socially awkward teen that seems insecure within his own body despite his outward, adult-like assuredness and shrewdness.  

Yet, that criticism is, oddly enough, the secret to Cera's subtle genius as a comic actor: he never tries hard for a laugh.   What I like about Cera so much is his ability to secure every one of his fantastic comic performances with a laid back, soft spoken, and tender vulnerability.  Yes, he has impeccable and dry comic timing, but he underplays parts with the skill of an actor twice his experience.  He never histrionically over-telegraphs scenes for an easy comic payoff; rather, he comes across as self-deprecatingly soft spoken, charming, and believable for how pensive he plays his parts.  Less is more, and that approach oftentimes scores larger laughs.  Cera is funny because he does not go out of his way to be funny.

He highlights all of his sardonic edge with his new film, YOUTH IN REVOLT, which embraces dark and cynical hilarity, a perversely inspired and youthful energy, and a menagerie of weird characters that – despite their farcical oddness – seem totally genuine and real.  Amidst all of this is Cera as the film’s quarterback through and through, as only he could have infused all of the weird and utterly zany sexual-coming-of-age story elements of this film with a gentleness and believability.   

Just consider: This is a teen romcom where the male “hero” – in a determined and oftentimes pitiful effort to sleep with the babe of his dreams – does unimaginable things, like setting fire to half of Berkeley, breaking various civil laws, inadvertently drugging his beloved, physically fighting with his father, crashing an all-female French boarding school, gorging on magic mushrooms, and, if that were not enough, he develops for himself a schizophrenic “supplemental personality” named Francois Dillinger that is not only French, but, is “bold, contemptuous of authority, and irresistible to women.”  Oh, and at one point he even dresses up in drag to fool and make his way through his girlfriend-to-be’s fiercely zealot-like Christian parents in order to be with her.  To say that YOUTH IN REVOLT embraces unbridled ludicrousness is an understatement.  

Yet, despite the film’s inane preposterousness, it is Cera that grounds all of the sensationalistic and erratic energy here with another one of his dexterous and cheerfully submissive comic performances.  The character he plays is also a total original: Nick Twisp is a young 16-year-old with a well-above-average intelligence that simultaneously looks at the world around him with a contemptuous detachment and a romantic eagerness and yearning.  He is remarkably smart and cultured (his impeccably articulate mind loves things like jazz and the films of Fellini and Japanese masters).  He lives his meager adolescence surrounded by adult figures that are his cerebral inferiors (calling them "trailer trash" would be kind).  His parents (Steve Buscemi and Jean Smart) are divorced and his father has shacked up with a blond bimbo half his age (Ari Graynor) whereas his mother is sleeping up with one degenerate loser after another (played respectively by Zach Galifianakis and Ray Liotta).  Actually, it is Nick's absolute repugnance towards his parent's twisted sexual proclivities that angers him the most:  He is a hopeless virgin without any hope of losing it any time soon, and the fact that his white trash mother and father have virtually no problems whatsoever with scoring repeatedly with multiple partners infuriates him to no end. 

Things change for the better for Nick when he accompanies his mom and her boyfriend to a Bible-belt trailer park where he has the ultimate meet-cute with the perfect goddess of his fantasies: Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday, seductively witty, beautiful, and funny) and from the time they first lock glances he is forever smitten.  Nick loves everything about this girl, whom he feels is not only insatiably attractive, but is also his socio-cultural-intellectually equal.  Yet, the more time they spend together the more it appears that Nick is the only one that has romantic interests in the other (Sheeni likes Nick, but she seems curiously aloof when it comes to sending him clear signals of romantic interest).  

Realizing that he does not want to have a semi-innocent summer fling with this girl, Nick decides to do what any normal and determined teenager would under dire circumstances: he creates a distinctly different personality apart from himself named Francois, also played by Cera (Nick named him Francois because Sheeni’s self-described dream mate would be French and have the same name).  Francois looks like Nick’s twin, but he is anything but: he has blue eyes, a flimsy, pencil thin moustache, a deeper and more solemn voice, and, most importantly, he is a rebellious rulebreaker that flips the bird at adults and authority in general.  Francois makes it his mission to instruct Nick in the best manner possible to secure the love of his life, which is to enact an insane scheme that sees Nick becoming a bad boy by committing several social atrocities, so much so that he eventually becomes a wanted criminal and a fugitive from the law.  The rationale: Hot girls love rebels…right? 

YOUTH IN REVOLT – which is based on the first three C.D Payne stories about an Oakland teen's improbable personal journey – is smart, cool, and frequently bizarre and uproarious, mostly for how the script (provided by CHARLIE BARTLETT writer, Gustin Nash) provides some delightfully witty dialogue exchanges that springs from the two main richly imagined characters.  What I found compelling was how the script managed to make the dialogue between Nick and Sheeni ripe with explicit sexual overtones (the film very appropriately earns its R-rating) while making it all feel somewhat naïve and sweet.  The key is the wonderful chemistry between Cera and Doubleday, and they have the tricky task of making these characters both razor sharp and refined while hinting at their teenage virtue and naiveté.  Doubleday in particular, a young natural beauty and terrific find, manages to project her character’s veneer as an alluring temptress to Nick alongside a youthful spunk and insecurity.  Much has been made that the film – like, say, the writings of Diablo Cody – is too stylized at making Nick and Sheeni so stalwartly verbose and bright-minded that it strains credulity.  That’s a cop out and an insult to young adults (are all young people supposed to be moronic simpletons that talk in odious colloquial slang?).  What’s so liberatingly euphoric here is that we have lustful and troublesome teen characters that are not reduced to one-note caricatures trapped in a sex comedy.  YOUTH IN REVOLT shows a peerless affection for the astuteness and wit of its two main adolescent characters, and isn’t it so refreshing to have a teen film where its protagonists speak and enunciate fluently and with a real elegance and flavor?  

That is not to say that YOUTH IN REVOLT is as well tailored and sophisticated as its main characters.  The film is still affectionately awash in hysterically outlandish scenes and sight gags that harnesses the script's hormonally wonky slant.  Most of the juicer laughs come from Francois, who serves as an inspirational coach for Nick, even when his motives seem devilishly impure.  At one point in the film he lashes out at Nick, "You’ve been making the wrong choices for 16 years, now just shut up and let’s go blow some shit up!”  He also scores large chuckles with the way he speaks (through Nick) towards Sheeni during the more intimate encounters (“I want to tickle your belly button...from the inside,” he mischievously tells her at one key moment).  Cera as Nick, on the same token, also generates huge guffaws with the most odd, throwaway lines, which manage to come across as sincere with the actor’s sly and nonchalant ennunciation: “I burnt down Berkeley for you," he boats to Sheeni at one crucial scene, whereas others revel in their uncompromisingly sarcastic and farcical tone: In one instance, when he confronts and threatens another more handsome and preppy suitor of Sheeni’s, Nick hilariously deadpans, “I will only tell you and your adorable sweater once and once only to step back.”   Not too many actors could have made that line a potent zinger, but Cera can.

The film has so many other inspired moments of droll richness: Fred Willard has a knee-slapping cameo as a friend to Nick that is involved in one of the best laughs in the film (watch the next shot that follows Nick responding to him with the word “solidarity” to explain why he and his friend are out in the middle of nowhere wearing only in their underwear).  There is also a very funny gag involving Nick, his car, a very shallow lake, and a squad of police officers that is an unmitigated scream.  Yet, as improbably odd and bawdy Nick (and Francois’) sexual adventures are to secure his love, YOUTH IN REVOLT manages to conclude on a strangely sweet and affectionate note.  Very few romcoms – let alone teen-fuelled ones – are able to harness this film’s very eclectic mixture of aberrant lewdness, cultivated farce, wicked absurdity, cheerful frivolity, and, yes, earnest and shrewdly drawn characters.  YOUTH IN REVOLT is unhinged in its strangeness and go-for-broke wackiness, but it also makes its personas feel improbably authentic and relatable.   And at the heart of it all is Michael Cera, who can, in my opinion, continuing doing what he does repeatedly, but with such unimpeachably confidence, with every comedy he’s in.

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