Short Version: Not at all what it was advertised to be, Youth In Revolt will leave a lot of people scratching their heads.
Youth In Revolt is one of those movies that, as soon as the opening credits rolled, I could tell had been totally advertised as something it’s not – though not without good reason (but more on that later).
The film is based on a series of novels by C.D. Payne, in which Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) a mild-mannered boy of refined tastes, tries to rebel against the trappings of an unrefined upbringing and immoral authority figures in order to be united with his true love, Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday).
Nick is a hapless virgin trapped in a house with a mother (24‘s Jean Smart) whose only enjoyment in life seems to be the “attention” she gets from a series of skeevy men looking to occupy her bed for awhile. One of those dudes (Zack Galifianakis) pisses off some sailors in a crooked deal and has to flee the neighborhood, dragging Nick and his mother along to a rusted trailer in the countryside to lay low for awhile. It’s hell on Earth… until Nick meets Sheeni Saunders.
Sheeni shares Nick’s sophisticated tastes and ambitions, hoping to one day trade trailer life with her religious fanatic parents for the lights and culture of Paris. Nick and Sheeni spend some wonderful days together waxing intellectual – and this is where Youth In Revolt drastically departs from what the advertisements promised to deliver.
The trailers promised us a story where Nick is spurned by Sheeni, and therefore creates a bad boy persona to win her over. This is not at all the case. In reality, Nick and Sheeni quickly proclaim their romantic devotion to one another – however before Nick can seal the deal he’s carted back home to his mother’s house again.
What follows is slightly hard to explain (hence the “creative” advertising of this film). Nick and Sheeni keep in contact; Sheeni tells Nick that if they want to be together, he will have to act out so brazenly that his mother will be forced to send him away. Enter “Francois Dillinger,” the French bad boy Nick manifests as his best estimation of the man he thinks Sheeni wants him to be. Francois gets to work, quickly decimating Nick’s life, capping things off with an arson blaze that puts Nick on the wrong side of the law.
Thankfully, Nick’s mother has a new boyfriend (Ray Liotta) who’s a cop and covers for Nick. Through some vague scheme, Nick and Sheeni get Nick’s Father (Steve Buscemi) a job in the countryside and Nick gets sent to live with him – only Sheeni then gets sent away to boarding school. Nick pursues, there’s a showdown at the school, some other stuff involving Sheeni’s crazy stoner brother (Justin Long) – the cops eventually catch up with Nick/Francois, yadda, yadda, yadda… THE END.
It’s really hard to relate all this, and therein lies the major problem of Youth In Revolt. The movie is trying to tell too many stories in too short of a time. It never establishes any narrative arc, but rather meanders from one plot point to the next, introducing characters, discarding them just as quickly, starting up episodic story lines and ending them again until finally the end credits roll and the whole thing tries to claim some “thematic journey.” Too bad that many viewers will be so bored or confused by then to notice.
The characters are no help either. I know a lot of people wrote Michael Cera off as playing yet another version of the same awkward teen he always plays – but believe me, it’s never that clear-cut. Nick is at times cynical, awkward, confident, diabolical, crazy and petty – and that’s just when he’s being Nick. The whole “Francois” alter-ego thing? Hardly a relevant part of the story at all. The kids in the film all talk like they’re high society debonairs – the adults in the film all behave like aged caricatures from your average raunchy teen flick. Is there something “smart” in that role reversal? Many viewers will be too annoyed by the way these kids talk to ever wonder.
When thinking of the best analogy to describe this film, I ultimately landed on this: “Imagine if Wes Anderson made a teen rebellion flick.” Director Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck) seems to be channeling some Anderson here, with stylistic nods to the French New Wave (“La Nouvelle Vague”) movement of the 60s. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments in Youth In Revolt, but many of them feel isolated and coincidental rather than carefully planned and executed. The rest of the time I was sitting there thinking, “This is so weird,” although not quite in a “Give me my money back,” kind of way – which only made the experience that much stranger.
In the end, Youth In Revolt isn’t really bad, it isn’t really good, it just is. A weird departure from the usual teen coming-of-age flick that many will not appreciate. My advice? Spare yourself the ticket price – and probably even the rental price when it hits DVD. But when the film reaches cable, have a look at this strange, at times funny, at times smart film for yourself and then let me know what you manage to get out of it.