The collision of adolescent hormones and parental folly, hardly new cinematic territory, gets a bracing absurdist slant in Youth in Revolt.
C.D. Payne's relentlessly wiseass 1993 novel, subtitled The Journals of Nick Twisp, transfers to the screen with its humor and high energy mostly intact and a thoroughly engaging lead performance by Michael Cera. Given the book's popularity and the movie's ace cast and comic punch, Dimension Films can expect word-of-mouth to drive strong business upon its October 30 release.
No stranger to eccentric characters, director Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl) has infused the picaresque tale with headlong drive and amused outrage. The script by Gustin Nash (whose Charlie Bartlett presented the worldview of another disaffected hyperintelligent teen) condenses 500 pages of incident-packed narrative, shucking characters and story lines and maintaining the whip-smart tone, if not entirely avoiding a surfeit of plot twists. The movie also, understandably, scales back the lead character's all-consuming horniness and makes him 16 rather than 14.
With stellar talent to play the idiotic adults who torment Cera's Nick, it's too bad they don't get more screen time. But around the edges of the star-crossed love story between Nick and Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday, impressive in her first leading role), the seasoned vets limn vivid cartoon characters -- as self-involved as the kids but less self-aware.
As Nick's divorced and, to his unending distress, sexually active parents, Jean Smart and Steve Buscemi etch foolishness and hypocrisy in the extreme. Like all the film's performances, theirs are both broad and specific, the disappointment of middle age just beneath the screeching surface. Smart, in bleached blond tresses and halter tops, has more to do and does it well, particularly in Mom's canoodlings with ridiculous boyfriends (Zach Galifianakis and Ray Liotta).
Thanks to ridiculous boyfriend No. 1, Galifianakis' Jerry, a last-minute vacation takes Nick to Restless Axles, a Christian trailer park. It's there that he meets Sheeni, a well-read Lolita and the girl of his virginal dreams, and quickly assures her that belching Jerry is not his father but his mother's consort. Nick and Sheeni both have massive vocabularies and contempt for mediocrity. He worships Sinatra, she adores Belmondo and all things French, and before long he has persuaded the wise-beyond-her-years beauty to end her relationship with the impossibly smug Trent (Jonathan Bradford Wright). But in order for them to be together, Nick must effect his father's relocation to Ukiah, where Sheeni lives, and his own banishment by Mom to Dad's new digs.
In single-minded pursuit, Nick blazes a trail of destruction, beginning with a conflagration in Berkeley, Calif. Considering that a Chevy Nova, complete with threatening spray-painted message, sits in his mother's living room, Nick's atrocities, both intentional and otherwise, feel almost reasonable. As the story progresses, plot contrivances are almost beside the point, though the film loses steam in its later sections involving Sheeni's spacey brother (Justin Long). As her parents, Mary Kay Place and M. Emmet Walsh are in mostly for their considerable face value, and the terrific Fred Willard plays the story's one generous, if often clueless, grown-up. In a role drastically reduced from the book, Erik Knudsen (Jericho) portrays best friend Lefty with a comic brooding intensity.
But the film belongs to the always-compelling Cera, who provided the only real rooting interest in Juno. Facile comparisons might indicate otherwise, but that film's arch combo of snark and schmaltz is not the turf of Youth, which evinces convincing smarts and vulnerability. Playing wide-eyed Nick and mustachioed Francois Dillinger, the supplementary persona he conjures to help him wreak havoc, Cera is a delirious double dose of romance and cynicism. When he tells Sheeni, I've been alone my whole life, the emotional impact is undeniable.
Without overdoing the voice-over, the film stays true to the novel's point of view and sharp timing. Arteta makes clever, judicious use of various sorts of animation by Peter Sluszka, particularly in a mushroom-tripping sequence involving sex-manual illustrations. Character-defining costumes and interiors are key contributions, well captured by DP Chuy Chavez. Rather than approximate the story's California setting, Michigan locations depict an appropriately nonspecific Americana. A postcard sky over a lake is a fitting canopy for this loopy waking dream of an escapade.