On the surface, it might seem like just another Awkward Michael Cera Comedy. It’s true that element is present, but it’s also so much more. “Youth in Revolt” is the story of a precocious Bay Area teenager named Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) whose affinity for Frank Sinatra and Italian cinema only briefly distracts from his raging hormones. When his mother’s redneck boyfriend (Zack Galifianakis) gets in trouble with some naval officers, they decide to lay low in a camping trailer park in Ukiah. It’s there that Nick meets and falls head-over-heels for Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), an undeniable beauty and his intellectual equal. However, several elements keep him from being with his beloved including Sheeni’s religious parents and an over-achiever Adonis of a boyfriend named Trent. Nick creates id-like alter ego, Francois Dillinger, in order to undertake extreme measures necessary to get the job done, including blowing up part of Berkeley so that he will be sent to live with his dad in Ukiah.
It’s never an easy feat to adapt a beloved book. Besides the usual outcry from Superfans, a 500-page adolescent hipster-training manual from 1993 would need some editing to become a 90-minute feature film. It was important to have a light touch so as to preserve the essence of C.D. Payne’s rich characters. But Gustin Nash was up to the task and managed to write a script with good sense of modern timelessness. (e.g. He quickly did away with the ubiquitous cell phone conundrum with a quick line about how Nick can’t afford one.) There were other small tweaks as well. Cera’s Nick isn’t quite as incessantly bonered as the literary version (perhaps, by making him two years older, he’s had time to come to terms with his all-consuming sexuality). Die-hard fans may miss references to “T.E.s” and “I’m Single, Let’s Mingle”. But obsessing over these little differences is nitpicking an otherwise extremely enjoyable film. Nash’s script serves as not only excellent shorthand for the novel but also an entertaining and, in terms of its cinematic peers, original comedy film.
In general, Cera haters have a valid complaint. If his brand of charming awkwardness isn’t your thing, you’re going to have a hard time watching any of his movies. But, in this case, I hope the dissenters give him another shot. While normal Nick is still very Cera-esque, his turn as Francois definitely showcases another level to his talents. Francois is crude, hard and physical comedy gold. Cera isn’t the only one who gets to show what else he can do. There isn’t a single weak link in the cast. Zack Galifianakis, normally typecast as the lovable weirdo, gets to be completely un-charming as redneck, Jerry. Justin Long is spot on as Sheeni’s druggy guru older brother. And while Steve Buscemi and Fred Willard have a hard time stretching their acting muscles, they are still perfectly cast in roles well within their means.
Also notable is the film’s structure. For a film based on a fictional journal, Arteta and Nash managed to avoid the usual voiceover trappings, using this type of exposition sparingly. It’s hardly noticeable, whilst still giving the uninitiated viewer a clear overview of the protagonist. Whimsical animated sequences transition the story from one location to another (or serve to…ahem…accurately illustrate a mushroom trip).
Michael Cera has lamented that C.D. Payne’s novel would have made a better mini-series than a feature film. Indeed there are several characters that were cut and others could have been developed more. But since they signed up for a feature, this was certainly the way to do it. And for those without the mental baggage of the book, “Youth in Revolt” is just a good, solid comedy.