(by Dustin Putman
When "Youth in Revolt" was pulled from its planned October 2009 release date following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein illogically reasoned that the film played so well to audiences that an early-January opening would be more appropriate. The dead zone of January—where misfit studio movies go to die—better than the prestigious fall season? Suffice it to say, the Brothers Weinstein have never been accused of being particularly honest or up-front about their business decisions. Perhaps that's why they have recently found themselves in a financial pickle. Behind-the-scenes gossip aside, how is "Youth in Revolt?" Well, let's just say there won't be enough viewers in love with it to equal much success, but far worse have come out in the early weeks of January. No surprise, opening the picture in October would have made keener business sense. Article continues below
Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) is not your average brain-dead teenybopper. An aspiring author, a lover of literature and Frank Sinatra, it hardly seems possible that he came from the womb of his unrefined, materialistic mother Estelle (Jean Smart). When a pretty classmate questions his video rental option (1954's Federico Fellini classic "La Strada"), Nick deadpans that the store is all out of his first choice, "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous." Mild-mannered and virginal, Nick's outlook on life suddenly changes when he goes on vacation with Estelle and trailer trash boyfriend Jerry (Zach Galifianakis) and meets local resident Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday). Sharing Nick's love of foreign films (particularly anything French) and record players, Sheeni is beautiful and smart, not at all like the other girls his age. Alas, their blossoming relationship is threatened to end before it begins when he must leave Clear Lake and return to Oakland. Their plan to stay together? Sheeni will work on finding a nearby job for Nick's dad George (Steve Buscemi) while Nick has to be so bad that Estelle will forego her child support payments and send him to live with his father. An alter-ego named Francois Dillinger rises from Nick's own personal revolution, but what results from his unlawful actions are not exactly what he and Sheeni had in mind.
Based on the novel by C.D. Payne, "Youth in Revolt" has been directed by Miguel Arteta (2002's "The Good Girl") with a stylistic blandness offset by overly colorful and generally stereotypical characters. With the exception of two interludes putting stop-motion animation to use, the filmmaking is mostly drab, unoriginal and of the point-and-shoot variety. A coming-of-age comedy with a proud R-rating, Arteta and screenwriter Gustin Nash (2008's "Charlie Bartlett") avoid censoring themselves—what teenager's life is PG-13, anyway?—but there doesn't seem to be much life found in the story or enough development of the walking clichés surrounding Nick and Sheeni.
It's a shame that the writing (save for the odd snippet of dialogue) is so pedestrian because Nick and Sheeni deserve a better movie. Together, they are irresistible creations, their youthful romance filled with a sweetness and forthright sensuality. Even better, they are both willful free-thinkers who share the same interests and identify with each other. They deserve to be together and away from their ugly parents—Estelle and George barely have time for Nick, while Sheeni's mom (Mary Kay Place) and dad (M. Emmet Walsh) are religious fanatics open to no viewpoint but their own—but the way they go about it is where the film runs into trouble. Following an immensely enjoyable opening half-hour that focuses almost solely on Nick and Sheeni, the two are separated, Nick splits into two himself (with suave, mustached, cigarette-smoking Francois Dillinger doing his dirty work), and the shenanigans involving his plight to reunite with Sheeni take the narrative down a dippy, implausible, overextended avenue. By the time Nick is running from police, crashing his car into a shallow lake, and drugging Sheeni, the simple, earnest qualities of the first act are but a distant memory.
If Michael Cera (2008's "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist") is accused of always playing the same part in every movie—that of the unassuming, soft-spoken, nice but witty teen—then at least he gets to tweak that here in his scenes playing Francois Dillinger. His range is still in question, but Cera is such a comfortable and pleasing presence that it's difficult to criticize him. As Sheeni, newcomer Portia Doubleday makes a striking debut. The girl of just about anyone's dreams—and she likes foreign films, to boot!—Doubleday is so assured and in-tune to her character it is as if she's been in front of the camera all her life. The rest of the ensemble, filled out top to bottom with recognizable faces, are only afforded broad types rather than three-dimensional people to play.
"Youth in Revolt" has its charms, but they wholly revolve around Nick and Sheeni and their puppy-love-cum-soul-mate relationship. The rest of the effort is mediocre, at best, full of forgettable and far-fetched comic episodes, unenlightening supporting characterizations, and, by the last act, a curious case of lethargy that stops the story momentum dead in its tracks. The final moments between Nick and Sheeni are winning and humorously honest—the way the conflict of the story is logically explained away and solved in a single line of dialogue is a great ending zinger—but it comes too late to right the script's wrong. As one of the first releases of 2010, it is doubtful many viewers will remember "Youth in Revolt" by 2011.