Nick Twisp is in love with a girl named Sheeni. That’s pretty much all you need to know about Youth in Revolt. You might also know that it’s a coming-of-age story based on a popular novel by C.D. Payne (reportedly in line for to-screen translation since its publication in 1993), or that Nick is played by that most popular movie boy Michael Cera, two factors that make you wonder why it’s being released in January, and not a season more apt to reap box office success.
It might matter as well that Nick is a very nice kid, a good student and a virgin, as well as usually a comfort to his frazzled mother Estelle (Jean Smart). Potential complications arise in Nick’s self-consciousness as a nice kid: he keeps a picture of Frank Sinatra, circa “Nice ‘n’ Easy,” on his bedroom wall. He also helpfully narrates, noting that he’s “a voracious reader of prose,” and well aware that even if fiction promises nice guys win out, in “real life, it’s usually the prick.” Cases in point: his mother’s serial partners, including ex-husband George (Steve Buscemi), currently residing with a much younger and bosomy Lacey (Ari Graynor), the fellow Nick terms her “consort,” beer-and-car enthusiast boyfriend Jerry (Zach Galifianakis), and her new lover, a very creepy cop named Lance (Ray Liotta). None of these men is nice by any means, and all are more successful than Nick.
As a high school student—even if well read—Nick tends to judge success by sex, quantity being the overriding measure. When, early in the film, Nick meets the significantly named Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), he’s bowled over. She lives in a trailer nearby with her bible-thumping parents, but she seems strangely worldly to Nick, a “comely angel.” He’s struck by her seeming intelligence (she’s dating a boy who writes poetry and she’s fond of things French, like Jean Belmondo), not to mention her All American blondness and blatantly sensual beauty. She sounds bemused by his niceness, though ready to be moved more strongly. When circumstances separate Nick from his object of affection, she encourages him to be “bad.” Thus begins his journey.
At this point it’s probably important to know that Youth in Revolt is directed by Miguel Arteta, whose Star Maps and Chuck & Buck tell similarly oddball stories of wanting too much. Both Carlos (Douglas Spain) and Chuck (Mike White), in the earlier films, come of age, though neither does it with Nick’s acute self-awareness. Youth in Revolt makes this plain in a somewhat gimmicky way, as Nick, desperate to win Sheeni’s heart, imagines a “supplementary persona,” Francois Dillinger (also played by Cera, whose patented physical awkwardness occasions frequent comedy). Outfitted in skinny white slacks, smoking cigarettes, and sporting a Belmondo-ish pencil mustache, Francois says and does those things Nick can’t say and do, commenting out loud on girls’ assets, breaking into girls’ dorms, or crashing vehicles into Berkley coffee shops, not very accidentally.
Of course Nick is impressed by the deliberately insouciant Francois, as he embodies exactly those qualities Nick imagines are cool. Sheeni is sometimes likewise stimulated, but the movie’s most engaging relationship is Nick and Francois’—she’s an inspiration, but less interesting as the plot devolves into slapsticky encounters and consequences. That his alter gives Nick a way (or perverse and made-up permission) to get even with all those lesser individuals who so beleaguer him is no small bonus. True, Nick does suffer intermittent punishments, but these become markers for him of evolution—he’s growing up when he’s coming out of himself.
In some of its references to other movies, Youth in Revolt seems a meta exercise, a reconsideration of teen romances as well as a teen romance. As such, it’s surprisingly engaging and smart, making good, frequently witty fun of the genre’s essential silliness and Cera’s own over-exposed persona. Paired with himself, Cera embarks on a road trip to win back the girl, working his well-known and physical awkwardness, even sorting through his feelings for his mom.
That’s not to say that Nick comes to any specific or lasting self-realization in the scene in which he (or is it Francois) contrives to visit the now off-limits Sheeni by dressing up as “Carlotta” (this suggests another sort of “coming out,” one the movie doesn’t investigate beyond the surface comedy of Nick in an absurd wig and Sheeni’s dad’s flabbergasty ignorance). It is to say that Nick’s lessons in how to be a man—not “bad,” or manipulative or successful in any conventional sense, but more to value his own sensitivity. It’s not a new story. It is instead partly sweet, partly strange, and mostly clever.