January 07, 2010

Youth in Revolt

Tyler Durden says to start lifting weights

Grade: B

Starring: Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Zach Galifianakis, Erik Knudsen, Steve Buscemi, Adhir Kalyan, Fred Willard, Ray Liotta, and Justin Long

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

It’s a familiar plotline for anyone who has watched movies since the 1980s: sexually frustrated teen seeks to lose his virginity, falls head-over-heels for a beautiful girl, and then undergoes a series of wacky exploits on his way to accomplishing his goal.

That director Miguel Areta (The Good Girl; Chuck & Buck) embraces such a shopworn subgenre in adapting C.D. Payne’s farcical coming-of-age novel Youth in Revolt is itself an ironic commentary on the landscape of cinematic comedies. Still, this is no Porky’s or slice of American Pie. Youth in Revolt owes more to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Little Darlings, and even Jean-Luc Godard, and while it may not be in the same class as that esteemed company, it is heady, hilarious fare that is already the surprise film of the young year.

Michael Cera has seemingly played the character of precocious, neurotic teenager Nick Twisp since his Arrested Development days. The 16-year-old Nick is a Holden Caulfield with a penchant for Sinatra and autoeroticism who longs to both shed his virginity and sever ties with his divorced parents (Jean Smart and Steve Buscemi). Mom cycles through loser boyfriends while Dad is shacked up with a bikini-clad blonde closer to Nick’s age.

When Mom’s latest lout (Zach Galifianakis) lands in hot-water, they and Nick take refuge at Restless Axles, a Christian trailer park in northern California. Enter Sheeni Saunders (newcomer Portia Doubleday), an erudite Lolita with an abiding love for all things French, including her pinup of Jean-Paul Belmondo. She and Nick wax whip-smart and commence a PG-rated summer fling, but his coitus interruptus proves to be Sheeni’s handsome, French-speaking, piano-playing, Futurist percussive poetry-spouting boyfriend, Trent (Jonathan Bradford Wright).

When Nick returns home and Sheeni leaves to attend a French boarding school in Santa Cruz, his solution on how they might reunite revolves around mischief created by Fran├žois (also played by Cera), a pencil-mustachioed, Gitanes-smoking figment of Nick’s imagination. The brazen Fran├žois – part Jeff Spicoli, part Belmondo in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou – embodies Nick’s id and represents the sort of man he believes girls prefer. Spurred on by his inner Tyler Durden, Nick conflagrates his hometown of Berkley and sabotages Sheeni’s schooling.

Payne’s sharp wit translates well to the screen in the hands of writer Gustin Nash, whose coming-of-age Charlie Bartlett plowed similar, albeit less fertile ground. There are occasions late in Youth in Revolt when its comic elements almost explode into brilliant, full-blown surrealism, especially a couple of shroom-tripping sequences: Nick incorporates sex-manual illustrations into the first, while the other finds Sheeni’s otherwise bible-thumping dad (M. Emmet Walsh) smearing mashed potatoes all over his face over Thanksgiving dinner.

However, virtually all the film’s characters are zany to the point of derangement. Without a reliable straight/sane counterpoint, the narrative nearly implodes into inanity – casualties include underwritten supporting turns from Ray Liotta and Justin Long, who plays Sheeni’s half-baked brother. These spells are saved by Erik Knudsen as Nick’s childhood friend Lefty, Adhir Kalyan – who mirrors Cera’s deadpan wit – as Nick’s new high school pal Vijay, and Fred Willard as an aging hippie. But, ultimately this is Cera’s show, and he exhibits range while carrying the film on his lanky back.

Youth in Revolt congeals romance, sex, and infatuation into one dysfunctional, indispensable confection. Circumstance forces Nick to disguise himself in drag before he can finally enter Sheeni’s boudoir. In the end, love begets masculinity, not the other way around.

Neil Morris

*Originally published at www.indyweek.com

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