When you think back on the best movies about teenage rebellion which ones come most immediately to mind? Rebel Without A Cause? Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Pump Up the Volume? Freeway? (Admittedly those last two may not appear on your own list.) The common denominator among them isn’t the degree of trouble the teens cause or the level of drama and danger they find themselves in… instead what makes these movies stand apart from the Whip It‘s of the world is the charisma and quality of both the lead character and actor. Youth in Revolt is filled with scenes featuring the destruction of property and disrespect for the establishment and authority figures, and it has a rebellious lead that will have you laughing along with his quest for a tomato to stick his filthy dick into (which will make more sense once you’ve seen the movie)… but is it enough to make this a classic of the teenage rebellion genre?
Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) is a typical teen with divorced parents and an unfulfilled desire to fornicate. When his mom and her new boyfriend take him on a “vacation” to a trailer park in beautiful Ukiah, CA, Nick meets and immediately falls for a girl he hopes will help rid him of the dreaded scarlet ‘V’ he wears across his chest. Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) is cute, smart, flirtatious, and knows her Ozu from her Miyazaki… but she also has a boyfriend and a different zip code than our hero. So what’s a boy in love to do?
Burn down half of Berkeley, obviously. Nick decides (with some urging from Sheeni) that to get the girl he’ll have to go rogue. But to do that the awkward, gangly, and tshirt-wearing Nick is forced to create a more self-assured persona. His name is Francois Dillinger… he’s stylish, mustachioed, intense, and there’s nothing he won’t say or do to help get Nick to the promised land. This includes somehow getting Nick’s father (Steve Buscemi) to move to Ukiah then getting kicked out by his mom (Jean Smart) so he’ll be forced to go live with dad. The plan also involves illegal substances, explosions, illicit sex in a girl’s dorm room, illegal immigrants, and pinky fingers stuck in animated bum-holes. Boy, these antics really bring me back. Especially that last one…
Youth in Revolt is a very funny movie, but it’s also a bit too lightweight to give it real staying power. Twisp’s quest for sex and a girlfriend obviously presents its fair share of challenges, but as dramatic as they seem they’re all actually dealt with pretty succinctly and episodically. Getting Nick’s dad to move is as simple as having Sheeni make a fake phone call posing as a job offer… he moves and presumably starts the job, but if it was fake how exactly does he manage that? The details aren’t necessarily important, but without them the movie feels less complete.
That void carries over into the supporting cast and prevents many of them from giving truly memorable performances. It’s not for lack of trying though… Justin Long’s turn as Sheeni’s mushroom-munching older brother provides a couple laughs as does a welcome Fred Willard as a radical neighbor prone to going topless and helping the downtrodden. If you’ve seen any of the trailers you’d be forgiven for thinking Zack Galifianakis has more than a few minutes of screen-time. He doesn’t. And surprisingly he also doesn’t contribute much to the comedy here… in fact he gets more laughs in G-Force. And that’s just not right.
But, and this is an important but, Cera fills that gap like a Na’vi warrior fills Smurfette. (I know that’s both nonsensical and obscene, but Avatar is all the rage now so I felt compelled to include it somehow…) He begins the movie in basically the same role he played in Superbad, but when Francois appears Cera manages to steal the movie not only from the other actors but from himself. His demeanor, expressions, voice, and even the way he carries himself all change visibly and dramatically from Nick to Francois. It’s truly the first new and different character Cera has played, and it hints at untapped abilities within the young actor.
It should be noted that the screenplay by Gustin Nash is based on CD Payne’s near 500-page novel. Some things clearly had to go, and even if Nash lost much of the details he was able to maintain the spirit. The movie exists in it’s own little universe of style and hipness slightly reminiscent of last year’s (500) Days of Summer. The opening credits convey a trip in claymation, a later car ride is presented via photo cutouts, illustrations leave the page and float into air… director Miguel Arteta does a fine job of limiting the use of such scenes so they never outgrow their welcome. Another important facet of the film is the fine line it walks between innocence and filth. The movie is surprisingly sexy at times and often quite foul-mouthed, but it never seems tawdry or feels the need to resort to semen gags.
While the lack of substance and depth may keep Youth in Revolt from reaching a high ranking in the annals of teen cinema, there’s no denying that Cera’s performance and the sharp dialogue will have you giggling and guffawing in your seat. I’ve already used the line about wrapping a girl’s legs around my head and wearing her like the crown that she is, and it worked like a charm (as far as you’ll ever know). The writing is so good at times that if you’re leaning towards seeing the movie I’d advise you not to watch the film’s red-band trailer because it gives away too many (but not nearly all) of the best bits of dialogue. But if you’re still on the fence about it then you should definitely give the trailer a chance. I guarantee (non-binding) that you’ll laugh aloud while watching it, but if you don’t then you and your adorable sweater can just step aside and keep on walking.
The Upside: Crisp dialogue; Cera may be replaying the same character but he does so perfectly, and his take on the alter-ego is a successful change from that usual shtick; surprisingly sexy without being dirty; fantastic animated sequence
The Downside: None of the supporting actors have much to do; story is limited and lightweight
On the Side: Director Miguel Arteta has a full slate ahead of him including an adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel “You Shall Know Our Velocity” which features the narrator dying on the first page (or on the front cover if you have the McSweeney’s edition).