In 1993, C.D. Payne penned a massive tome of a book, which turned out to be one of the craziest portraits of juvenile haphazard delinquency ever to hit the market -- Youth in Revolt. In 2009 it finally became a movie. The book is rich with the sort of wild situations that are the stuff of dreams for any film director: divorced parents, middle class angst, falling in love for the first time and the drama that comes with that. But most importantly, we are introduced to Nick Twisp, a mid-teenage protagonist whose complicated inner monologue runs the gamut from the quest for intelligence to the meticulous obsession with sexuality that marks the teen years.
From the beginning, there's a lot of characters, too many to do them all justice unless the film was eight hours long, but the basic plot revolves around Nick Twisp (Michael Cera), a resolute teenaged boy, consumed with his burgeoning sexuality and someday getting away from his cartoonishly obnoxious parents. Twisp's mother (Jean Smart) and her boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) take a short vacation at a trailer park where Twisp meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday). Almost immediately Twisp plans to move closer to Sheeni and so uproots his father (Steve Buscemi) and enrolls in Sheeni's school, where he makes friends and hears of rival love interests. Twisp's machinations reach Machiavellian proportions with the introduction of the bad-boy side of him, Francois Dillinger. The universe intervenes time and time again as Twisp attempts to win the lovely Sheeni's heart with the help of those around him. Will he ever lose his virginity and get the girl?
Nick Twisp is straight-up Cera, bumbling and adorable, all half-formed smiles and mumbling sentences, but Dillinger? Francois Dillinger is one of the funniest characters to appear on screen in years. Part suave competence, part who-gives-a-damn nonchalance, Cera plays the role with a smooth detachment unlike anything he has brought to his other acting roles. Dillinger is the ying to his yang, the dark side of Twisp's moon, the cool competent part of us that we always wish could take control and walk us through situations. (Instead we are left to think of just the right thing to say, minutes or days after the incident has already taken place.) The presence of Francois Dillinger gives voice to Twisp's inner thoughts, and provides a convenient scapegoat for the wilder antics of young Twisp.
Michael Cera is undoubtedly the star of this movie, and a great deal rests on his slim shoulders. He's up to the task, and the complications of playing two parts must have been a nice departure for a young actor who is probably beginning to feel a little typecast. As I said before, this film has a remarkable number of reputable faces in it, which, due to the 90-minute running time, ends up feeling a bit like a long string of cameos. Zach Galifianakas, Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta, Fred Willard -- the list goes on and on. Portia Doubleday turns in a sweet but bland performance as the beloved Sheeni Saunders, and it is Justin Long who is notable as Sheeni's wayward and open-minded brother Paul, guilty of introducing Twisp to psychedelic drugs and seeming clairvoyant at times. (Does Justin Long have the best cameos, or what? Remember when he took over Zack and Miri Make a Porno?)
The film earned a few negative points from me when they chose to move the time period from staunchly 1993 in the book, to a vaguely now-ish indistinguishable moment in time. There were some funny bits in the book that referenced the early '90s and we're far enough away from 1993 that it would have been nice to see a period piece, as it were. That said, hats off to screenwriter Gustin Nash and director Miguel Arteta, as translating this book to screen wasn't an easy task. They gave it their best shot and came out with something that feels very much like the book, but entirely able to stand on its own two feet. There are even some remarkably fun animated sequences that move the plot along without the feeling that you've lost some of the story.
Youth in Revolt is charmingly depraved in all the best ways. If you've read the book, you're really going to like it; if you haven't read the book, you're still really going to like it. The film is honest about what it feels like to be 14 with your whole life ahead of you,. The out-of-control feeling that goes hand in hand with being in the in-between stage of life -- divorced parents, leaving childhood behind -- is wonderfully preserved, though perhaps as adults all we can do is shake our heads. The thing is, Youth in Revolt is a movie for adults, the kind of embellished truth that we laugh at while remembering our own wilder days.