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Cause Without a Rebel

by Laura Leon on January 14, 2010

Youth in Revolt
Directed by Directed by Miguel Arteta

I’m not that geeky, really: (l-r) Cera and Doubleday in Youth in Revolt.

Ah, to be a teen again, suffering through the angst evoked in favorite rock songs or, if you’re Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) in Youth in Revolt, movies like La Strada and a shelf full of classic lit. The underlying goal to this suffering, of course, is love, or, in Nick’s case, getting laid, which, in his mind, apparently amounts to the same thing once he catches a glimpse of lissome Sheeni (Portia Doubleday) en route to the trailer-park showers. Yes, I mention such details because they mean something in Miguel Arteta’s interpretation of C.D. Payne’s popular book.

Instantly smitten, Nick sets about trying not to be so geeky, especially once Sheeni makes it clear that she’s got a boyfriend who speaks perfect French and writes futurist percussive poetry. At this point, early on, we realize that Nick hasn’t really read all those great books in his room, nor has he plumbed the depths of Fellini’s works, but he earnestly wants to do so. Such wannabe-isms float the trifle that is Youth in Revolt. Nick ends up developing an alter ego, François Dillinger, who smokes and sports a caterpillar mustache, wears topsides sans socks and altogether looks like the Marlboro Light man. Only Nick can see or hear François as he encourages him to set fire to his mother Estelle’s (Jean Smart) car or force the issue of shared dormitory sleeping arrangements with Sheeni.

Nick’s parents are self-involved—dad George couldn’t be bothered with the boy, and Estelle expends her limited energies ensuring whatever man she’s got in bed stays interested. “You’re selling yourself short, mom,” Nick tells her, when she explains that it’s hard for 48-year-olds with a kid and stretch marks to get a guy—and at first we think, how thoughtful of him. As the movie progresses, however, we realize that not only does he not mean it, but it’s true as well. Sheeni’s parents, played by M. Emmett Walsh and Mary Kay Place, are stand-ins for all things limited and small-minded in indie films—which is to say, Christian—and Arteta has fun doing close-ups of Walsh, his character felled by magic mushrooms, schmearing potatoes all over his face. In comparison, Sheeni’s drugged-out brother Phil is presented as edgy and cool in the way that Nick can’t even dream of becoming.

Arteta shows some flair, especially in the stop-action animated sequences, as when Nick and an Indian classmate take a road trip to see Sheeni and her slutty roommate. (It’s also a practical use of an apparently limited budget.)

Doubleday is convincing, blending sunny beauty with a glimmer of naughtiness, but one almost wishes she went further, dug deeper, kind of like Melanie Griffith in Something Wild (coincidentally, that movie’s costar, Ray Liotta, appears here, a potent visual warning to all of the dangers of hard living and plain old age). Cera continues to ply his sensitive, dorky everyguy persona; and although at times you see more, his François is too lightweight, never going quite far enough to spur Nick onto greater feats of derring-do.