To say I actually like Miguel Arteta’s Youth in Revolt is nothing short of astounding. Everything about this movie had stinker written all over it, from getting pushed back from 2009 into the wastes of January, where bad movies come to fester, to yet another Michael Cera star turn. The latter stood as the film’s biggest potential entanglement, since Cera plays yet another nebbish, bumbling persona. After a string of one-note performances in awful films last year (Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Year One, Paper Heart), Youth in Revolt threatened to push Cera’s career the way of the John Heders of the world.
Just looking at the film’s foundation, there’s no reason for it to work. It’s Cera, once again, as the dorky, awkward teen in another coming-of-age sex comedy—two things the world needs as much as I need certain body parts attached to my elbow. Just summarizing the plot—which is based on C.D. Payne’s novel of the same name—doesn’t do much to stoke the fires of anticipation. Cera plays Nick Twisp, a nerdy high schooler with a love of classic literature and a fully intact virginity. While on vacation, he meets Sheeni (newcomer Portia Doubleday), whose worldliness and mystery cause Nick to fall in love with her. It’s then up to the terminally arrested Nick to devise a plan of teenage rebellion, so he can get kicked out of his house and be with Sheeni.
It’s nothing fantastic when whittled down, but luckily Youth in Revolt is more than just a synopsis. It’s what’s added to the underpinning coming-of-age tale that makes it special. The best description I can give for this movie is Woody Allen by way of the teen-sex comedy. There’s a layer of self-conscious pretension that intermingles with the juvenile hormones of the film. Fellini’s La Strada (1954) and Jean-Paul Belmondo act as reference points and a dog named after Albert Camus rips up the family Bible. Thankfully, the movie never feels like it’s trying to be too smart. Instead, Youth in Revolt—like Allen—has a sense of humor about its own airs. For example, Sheeni’s boyfriend (Jonathon B. Wright, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist) writes “futuristic percussive poetry.” These affectations also lend the film a sense of authenticity, since the main characters are all of an age where one’s interests—in film or literature or even love—are more likely to define oneself and take on greater importance. This means even the film’s inflated, stylized dialogue feels natural within the universe of the movie.
I’ll admit that the Allen comparison isn’t quite apt, since it doesn’t give a complete picture of the nature of Youth in Revolt. Allen has never made anything as decidedly quirky or outright odd as this (in this sense, Youth in Revolt is a more willfully funny, more light-natured version of Ryan Murphy’s Running With Scissors (2006)). All the characters in this film have some bizarre, farcical eccentricity: Nick’s next-door neighbor (Fred Willard) harbors illegal immigrants in the name of political justice; Sheeni’s father has built himself a two-story trailer with a complete pipe organ inside. Sure, this aspect (along with the film’s languid indie-rock sound track) means the movie is constantly skirting the pitfalls of modern indie filmmaking, but this is an instance where the peculiarity feels genuinely absurd, and not some check mark needed to cover a demographic.
The real surprise, however, is Cera as Nick. Sure, the role isn’t far removed from the usual feeble characters he plays, but here there’s an undercurrent of confidence and intelligence—and likeability—that’s often missing in his roles. It helps that he’s given the chance to show some sort of range, since Nick’s attempts at disobedience are manifested by an imaginary, confident, cigarette-smoking, mustache-sporting alter ego by the name of Pierre Dillinger, played by Cera as very much the anti-Cera. What’s most amazing is that it’s his performance that holds the film together. It’s the final touch to a movie that’s very much a surprise. It’s funny, clever, intelligent and quirky. I’m dumbfounded. Rated R for sexual content, language and drug use.