Attractive or repulsive

Youth in Revolt

“Are you being sincerely ironic, Michael, or just ironically sincere?”

“Are you being sincerely ironic, Michael, or just ironically sincere?”

Rated 3.0

I’d better confess right up front that I still haven’t read a single one of C.D. Payne’s popular six-novel series, known collectively as “The Journals of Nick Twisp.” But with the very best of intentions I bought Youth in Revolt, the first, just recently.

This was after seeing the movie. So of course I only could find the movie tie-in edition of the novel, which makes me not just the illiterate wanker who didn’t know to read a book until its movie came out, but also the guy in his 30s sheepishly toting around a paperback with a big picture of Michael Cera on the cover. That seems a little wrong in any context, and I just think it’s something you should know going into my assessment of Youth in Revolt the film.

My assessment is that the film is not extraordinary, but it is a good time. As adapted by Gustin Nash (Charlie Bartlett) and directed by Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl), this Youth in Revolt seems at once an old-fashioned picaresque, in which a teenager’s intense summer-vacation romance drives him to episodic rascality, and the faddish epitome of perk-’n’-quirk packaging, whose animated interludes and indie-pop soundtrack call to mind the Cera-intensive Paper Heart and Juno. So it’s likely to be a bit magnetic to moviegoers, attractive or repulsive depending on your own polarity.

Another thing I’d better confess is that I like Cera. I still don’t know if he’s sincerely ironic or ironically sincere, but I like him. His Nick Twisp in particular—a cerebral, self-involved, hormone-addled outcast capable of refined cultural tastes and intense romantic fixations—is a movie role model I wish I’d had when younger (see also Jesse Eisenberg, early Jason Schwartzman). Technically Cera’s too old for this part, but we (or at least I) give him a pass because he’s him. How charmingly he delineates his character’s urge to be so worldly and adultlike, even when confronted with overwhelming evidence that most adults are uncivilized schnooks.

Of course, it all raises the fear that he’ll just keep doing a Michael Cera routine until one day suddenly he has turned undeniably old, and all that nonthreatening asexual innocence somehow has morphed into a horror of a bitter schmaltz and lechery. But not yet. So far we’re OK. Youth in Revolt gives us another angle on Cera’s blithe timidity. It allows him to play the straight man to himself.

Having endured the breakup of his frivolously trashy parents (Jean Smart, Steve Buscemi) and their subsequent, variously abhorrent recouplings (involving Zach Galifianakis, Ari Graynor, Ray Liotta), young Nick feels angsty and sexually bereft. By way of auspicious getaway from his East Bay home to a foothills trailer park, he meets an alluringly sphinxlike siren named Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), who shares his pretentious interests and goads his ardor.

“I have decided to create a supplementary persona named Francois Dillinger,” he’s telling us in a voice-over before long. “Bold, contemptuous of authority and irresistible to women.” This havoc-wreaking alter ego, played also by Cera but now in shades and loafers and a pencil mustache, becomes a wildly adorable parody of teen rebellion, and a droll, precise portrait of familiar adolescent notions about cynicism.

Cars get stolen and smashed, drugs consumed, genders bent. Berkeley (or, well, some Midwestern stand-in thereof) burns. Plans backfire. People get hurt. Justin Long gets baked. Fred Willard gets naked. Sheeni’s Bible-thumper parents (Mary Kay Place and M. Emmet Walsh) get very offended.

It’s odd and fun watching Cera dip into this peculiar range of voguish deadpan profanity. Galifianakis has familiarized some of the territory for us, but his presence can be distancing. Cera, on the other hand, seems like a confidant. Maybe the real reason an ill-fated MTV series of Youth in Revolt from 1998 never took is that it was waiting for now, and for him. And maybe it’s just fine if films made from books bully us into finally reading the books. All I really know from this glimpse and remembrance of Youth in Revolt is that I’m sure I’ll get to my Payne eventually.