From the outset, it’s clear that there’s something a tad skewiff about 2010’s Youth in Revolt. It’s not that the movie is excruciating or fatally flawed, but it suffers from an uneven tone, blunt satire, comedy which rarely provokes more than feeble giggles, and shallow, unrealistic lead characters. Adapted from the 1993 novel of the same name by C.D. Payne, the filmmakers clearly attempted to craft a remarkable black comedy, but the result is a disposable, consciously hip, forgettable film that’s sometimes amusing, frequently boring, and “Michael Cera” through and through. After all, Michael Cera always portrays the same dweeb in all of his movies, and this vibe pervades Youth in Revolt – it feels like a star vehicle specifically tailored for Cera’s image.
Teenager Nick Twisp (Cera) is shy virgin who watches foreign movies and listens to Frank Sinatra music. Needless to say, he tends to repel girls. This all changes when he’s taken on an impromptu vacation with his mum and her slob of a new boyfriend. In a stroke of fate (or contrivance), Nick meets the gorgeous, equally quirky Sheeni Saunders (Doubleday) and the two strike up some form of relationship. Suffice it to say, Nick is saddened when he and his family return home days later. In order to build something with Sheeni outside of a summer fling, Nick begins implementing an intricate plot that will hopefully pave the way for Sheeni to run away with him. To do this, Nick develops a bad boy alter-ego named Francois Dillinger who’s everything Nick isn’t: confident, strong, quick to retort, unafraid to speak his mind, and naughty.
Youth in Revolt is a mishmash of two old concepts (it’s like Fight Club meets American Pie), yet the results are only occasionally successful. Since it’s based on a novel, the screenwriters needed to pack a plethora of locations and characters into the brisk 85-minute runtime, and thus as a whole the film never really builds; it merely ambles along from episode to episode, resulting in a baffling jumble of diverse tones. Even worse are the situations that Nick finds himself entangled in – they’re designed to be amusing, but they’re uncomfortable. In fact, the film breaks down severely towards the end as Nick’s actions become more desperate and less justifiable, and he finds himself in situations that are sure to provoke face-palms. It’s even difficult to watch, much less to actually care. Furthermore, as these narrative obstacles unfold, it’s an inopportune time for new characters to be introduced. Unfortunately, the filmmakers failed to realise this, with Sheeni’s stoner brother (Long) showing up for the sake of fidelity to the novel, and Nick’s arch nemesis Trent (Wright) being introduced far too late into the proceedings.
Perhaps the biggest downfall of Youth in Revolt lies in the lack of likable, relatable or complexly-woven characters – like the film itself, the characters seem like mere amalgamations assembled from the quirky-movie spare parts bin. Nick is a 16-year-old who adores Frank Sinatra music and Fellini movies. Really? Sheeni, meanwhile, loves everything French, has a passion for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, and names her dog Albert (with a silent “t”). Are you serious? These characters are not in the least bit realistic, endearing or clever – rather, they’re pretentious and irritating. Moreover, director Michael Arteta’s decision to present Francois as a distinctly separate individual from Nick has its major drawbacks. There are instances when it simply does not work, as Francois’ implausible interferences with real life seems like a lazy way to continue the narrative progression.
Naturally, Cera leaned on his usual image for this film: a socially awkward dweeb with brains but no brawn or backbone. Here, Cera exhibits the same mannerisms, vibes and speech patterns that pervade all of his prior performances. Meanwhile, the Francois Dillinger alter-ego is nothing more than a pale imitation of a juvenile delinquent. Perhaps Cera merely lacks the talent to pull off a badass, or the actor is so typecast that the director would only allow him to go so far. In the role of Sheeni, on the other hand, Portia Doubleday is a standout – she’s easily the greatest thing about the movie. Cera and Doubleday share a moderate amount of chemistry, but not the scintillating type that’s so crucial in these types of movies. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast are fairly standard-order. Steve Buscemi (looking mighty old) is adequate as Nick’s estranged father, while Justin Long (Live Free or Die Hard) fails to make much of an impact as Sheeni’s stoner brother.
One senses that the unachieved intention behind Youth in Revolt was to craft a hip, comedic love story (with echoes of 2007’s Juno) that takes audiences to a familiar place via a new road. Alas, a lot of the quirky elements are flat, there are a lot of misjudged script choices, and the comedy is rarely good for more than a half-hearted chuckle. It has its moments from time to time, and there’s a decent amount of energy, but there’s little to care about in Youth in Revolt and even less to laugh about.