Sometimes, you have to break the rules to get what you want. For Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) — a 16-year-old with an exceptional vocabulary and burning need to lose his virginity — niceness is his default and girls are out of reach.
When Nick meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) one summer afternoon, his latent sense of teen rebellion kicks in, personified by the arrival of his cigarette-smoking, mustache-sporting alter-ego, Francois Dillinger (Michael Cera). Under Francois’s guidance, Nick plans to win Sheeni’s heart by raising hell and approximating the act of having fun: In short, behaving like we expect teenagers to behave, albeit with a little more oomph and a few more cops on his tail.
Youth in Revolt, the latest work from director Miguel Arteta, is a coming-of-age story with a campy sensibility and finely tuned comedic core. Unlike other more tepid takes on youthful angst and glory, Arteta doesn’t mistake quirkiness for depth. Yes, Cera employs his signature, poker-face demeanor. Yet, as both Nick and his inner bad-boy, Francois, his performance is sharper than in previous roles — plus, his character is more interesting. Similarly, Nick’s mellifluous love interest transcends her potential to be another flat, precocious girl-next-door, in part because her love of all things French becomes a hilarious motif. Instead of remaining simply a throwaway attribute, Youth in Revolt thrives on her Francophile tendencies in clever and unexpected ways.
Based on C.D. Payne’s eponymous novel, Youth in Revolt also features a handful of other wacky characters who make up Nick’s life. Most importantly, there’s his histrionic mom Estelle (Jean Smart) who has a rotating roster of boyfriends and his sour-puss dad George (Steve Buscemi), who lives with a hot, blonde young thing named Lacey (Ari Graynor). Slipped in among them all — quietly, between the film’s raucous misadventures — is the truth that Nick is a lonely kid caught between trashy parents who seem to have zero genetic or emotional connection to their son.
Brief violent encounters underscore this void. In one grisly scenario, one of Estelle’s boy-toys lets loose on Nick with a little corporal punishment. While Francois stands in as a joke-cracking whipping post, the artful attempt at levity is muddled amid the movie’s largely harmless antics. Later, it’s Nick who takes the punches when his father gets riled up. This time, there’s no attempt to lighten up the mood as they tussle in an out-of-place scene.
Despite the few, oddly handled moments,Youth in Revolt far exceeds expectations with a strong story and truly creative filmmaking. As Nick hurtles face-first toward maturity, Arteta’s instincts for pacing keeps things funny and engaging. And as Nick hits a few roadblocks along the way, the film’s humor and judicious use of animation imbues a light-hearted sensibility that helps keep a little sun shining on the tough job of growing up.