I flipped through C.D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt in Powell’s last August, but decided to forgo Holden Caulfield in flip flops for William T. Vollmann smoking crack with prostitutes. So I didn’t read the book before seeing the movie. The premise of a socially inept, overeducated white kid from Berkeley trying to get laid sounded more promising as 2 hours of cinema than as 600 pages of text.
In the film, Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) is an articulate (does Cera ever play a boy of few words?) 16-year-old who rents La Strada and listens to Frank Sinatra records after school. Ostracized by the cool kids for his “Do tampons come with that?” taste in high art, Nick spends most of his time alone, masturbating, and bugging his man-aholic mother about whether her relationship with a nail-biting, beer-drinking mechanic boyfriend (played by a terribly underutilized Zack Galifinakis) is “just puppy love or a serious thing.” It seems like everyone else is fucking while Nick has yet to unsnap a training bra.
Things change when Nick goes on a trip with his mother and her boyfriend to Ukiah, a picturesque small town in Northern California. (Note, however, that much of this film was shot in Michigan, with Ann Arbor posing as Berkeley.) He meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a nymphet who fantasizes of moving to France one day and finding her own Jean-Paul Belmondo — and who is also kind of a bitch. But a poreless complexion, flaxen blonde hair, and curves that seem stolen from a woman five years older distract Nick from the fact that she is basically fucking with him, teasing the sexual naif and eventually tossing him aside like a pair of dirty granny panties.
Still, let’s not forget that this is Hollywood: If a guy tries hard enough, he will get laid. And try Nick does, undergoing his own Sandra Dee-style transformation with the creation of an alter ego, Francois Dillinger, a cigarette-smoking, pencil-mustached Don Juan who knows what women want. Together, Nick and Francois instigate a spree of criminal activity (crashing cars into storefronts, lakes, etc.) in order to flee Berkeley and reunite with Sheeni. Initially, the Francois bits are amusing, because Cera plays this lothario perfectly: serious, smirking, and smug as fuck (a glimpse, perhaps, of what’s to come when Cera releases the captive pigeon that is his career). The amusement wears off as Francois’ scheming takes precedence over Nick’s awkwardness, giving us balls and swagger rather than sweaty palms and nervous laughter.
Youth in Revolt includes moments of comedic brilliance, most of which involve Cera fumbling around in his underwear or Fred Willard’s character, a loveable, aging activist. Steve Buscemi does what he can with a meager part as Nick’s neurotic father, but like most parents in teen comedies, he spends too much of the film sidelined.
But the cast’s real bummer is Portia Doubleday. Despite plenty of screen time and sharp dialogue, she gives a one-note performance as Sheeni, opting for the easiness of playing it sexy. Problem is, Sheeni isn’t just sexy, she’s sad, too. Like Nick, she must navigate the minefield of performative sexual identity, and even beauty can’t save you from the vulnerable embarrassment that entails. I’m not asking for a Larry Clark film here, nor do I expect a mainstream, “get-laid” flick to offer a realistic teenage girl’s perspective, but Doubleday could have at least cracked the porcelain a bit, giving an otherwise fluffy film some weight. Her aloofness and casual amusement in the face of another boy’s bleeding heart is a defense mechanism she’s learned from the movies; her facade of sexual confidence is meant to distract from the fear of rejection, humiliation, and generally not knowing what to do. Instead of conveying this, Doubleday bats her eyes, pouts her lips, and goes gaga over puppies. Cera demands an acting partner who can keep up with him, and his Nick is far too complicated for Doubleday’s flat Sheeni.
Overall, Youth in Revolt is formulaic but genuine. It’s certainly no Rushmore, but it is poignant and smart enough to be a fresh entry into the teen genre. Whereas a film like Superbad emphasizes the difference between brain and libido, Youth in Revolt highlights the hyperbole of young romance, when first love seems like true love, and we’d do just about anything to prolong that electric feeling. Director Miguel Arteta’s mistake — one that Wes Anderson has done well to avoid — is in relying on over-the-top histrionics to convey quiet crisis.