Thursday, January 7, 2010

Movie Review, Youth in Revolt

Youth in Revolt ***
Directed By:
Miguel Arteta.
Written By: Gustin Nash, based on the novel Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp by C.D. Payne
Starring: Michael Cera (Nick Twisp), Portia Doubleday (Sheeni Saunders), Zach Galifianakis (Jerry), Justin Long (Paul Saunders), Steve Buscemi (George Twisp), Ray Liotta (Lance Wescott), Ari Graynor (Lacey), Jean Smart (Estelle Twisp), Rooney Mara (Taggarty), Fred Willard (Mr. Ferguson), Christa B. Allen (Karen), M. Emmet Walsh (Mr. Saunders), Mary Kay Place (Mrs. Saunders), Adhir Kalyan (Vijay Joshi), Erik Knudsen (Lefty), Jonathan B. Wright (Trent Preston).

C.D. Payne’s book Youth in Revolt is a beloved classic for teenagers about the trials and tribulations of Nick Twisp. Nick is a 14 year old boy, who is the course of a year falls in love with a young, manipulative goddess named Sheeni, and ends up going to great lengths to remain a part of her life. The book is funny and irreverent, and surprisingly honest about what it takes to be a teenager in this day of age. The movie based on the book, directed by Miguel Arteta (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl) and starring Michael Cera as Nick is hilarious – a definite good night at the movies – but lacks the edge that made the book as good as it was. It is a fine film, but it should have been a new teen classic, and it isn’t.

Nick is stuck living at home with his divorced mother Estelle (Jean Smart), and her seemingly never ending line of boyfriends. The latest is Jerry (Zach Galifianakis), a long haul trucker, who pisses off some sailors by selling them a lemon of a car, and decides it is best to lay low for a while. So he packs up his car and takes Estella and Nick on a vacation to a rundown trailer owned by a friend. It is while on this vacation that Nick lays eyes on Sheeni, a beautiful, but pretentious, girl. She is obsessed with the French, and considers Jean Paul Belmondo, star of Godard’s classic Breathless, to be the ultimate sex symbol. Twisp tries to impress her with his own cinematic knowledge, but incorrectly indentifies Mizoguchi as the director of Tokyo Story, when we all know of course that Ozu directed that one. Who hasn’t been there? (Okay, so maybe that’s just something only me and Nick have in common).

When Nick is forced to leave Sheeni to return home, he is crestfallen – not least because he never actually got laid and Sheeni has a buff, poetry writing boyfriend at home (he writes Slam poetry, which by the sound of it in this movie is simply putting random words in random order). He wants to move closer to Sheeni, so they can be together, but the only way to do that is to get his father (Steve Buscemi) a job in the area, and somehow get himself thrown out of his mother’s house. Getting his father the job is the easy part. But Nick is too much of a coward to do anything truly bad to get himself thrown out. This is why he invites Francois Dillinger, his chain smoking, faux-French alter ego, to do bad things (like burning down half of Berkeley), to get him sent away. But every time he thinks he is getting closer to Sheeni, he is actually getting farther away, and he has to continue to come up with plans, each even farther out than the last one, to keep them together.

I know that some critics have tired of Michael Cera’s stumbling, shy, awkward comic persona, but to me it still works remarkably well. I always relate to Cera’s awkward delivery, and find him to be among the funniest actors out there. True, his recent films (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Year One and strangely Paper Hear where he plays himself, among them) have not allowed Cera to play truly interesting people, but in Youth in Revolt, the role of Twisp fits him like a glove. When he switches over and plays Francois Dillinger, he is also surprisingly effective as the calm and collected troublemaker. It is good to see him in a decent role again.

Cera is surrounded by a top notch cast as well. Newcomer Doubleday is wonderful as Sheeni – smart and pretty, with the pretentious air that only truly beautiful people can get away with, Doubleday effortlessly convinces us why Nick falls for Sheeni in the first place. In smaller roles, Smart, Galifankis, Buscemi along with Ray Liotta as a cop, Justin Long as Sheeni’s stoner brother, Fred Willard as the left wing nut next door and M. Emmet Walsh and Mary Kay Pace as Sheeni’s parents are also quite good – good enough in fact to cover up the fact that their roles are not very well written.

Arteta is a sharp comic director. After his first three films, he has mainly worked on TV shows like Freaks and Geeks, Ugly Betty and Six Feet Under, and his has honed his craft quite a bit in recent years. Youth in Revolt is a fast moving, funny little movie. Since the book was quite long, some of the material inevitably had to go, and I agree with most of the choices made here - seriously, the book spent far too much time with Nick after he started cross dressing and pretending to be Carlotta (a reference to Vertigo perhaps? The only time I ever hear the name Carlotta is in association with Carlotta Valdez), something the movie has the good sense to limit to one scene. I do wish the movie had kept more of the comic edge that book had though. Nick and Sheeni were not nearly as sympathetic there then they are in the movie, but I suppose you do not want too much dark material getting in the way of this teenage romance. Youth in Revolt remains an uncommonly intelligent and funny teen comedy – something that is far too rare these days.

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