An “Arrested Development”-age Michael Cera would have been perfect for “Youth in Revolt,” being the firsthand adventures of sex-obsessed 14-year-old Nick Twisp, but sometimes the material is so right for an older star (like Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate”), you just have to accept the stretch. From “Superbad” to “Juno,” Cera’s certainly perfected his socially awkward, virginity-averse adolescent shtick, and while “Youth” doesn’t echo the deeper themes of those pics, Cera and his gifted comic co-stars elevate the mediocre source material into a semi-iconic coming-of-age story. Long-delayed Dimension release (set to open Jan. 15) looks promising, though its R rating excludes the ideal teen aud.
Adapted by Gustin Nash (whose “Charlie Bartlett” reflects a similar adolescent smart-aleck attitude from the opposite end of the economic spectrum), the arc of “Youth in Revolt” ages Twisp two years and encompasses the first three volumes in C.D. Payne’s six-book series. The novels, presented as Nick’s journals, document the character’s oft-recurring erection and ideas on where he’d like to stick it; indeed, the pic opens with a masturbation session vigorous enough to establish the mindset of its libidinous protag.
In Twisp’s world, everyone seems to be having sex but him. The unfortunately named teen shares a house with his equally one-track-minded mother (Jean Smart) and her latest live-in boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis), while Twisp’s divorced dad (Steve Buscemi) dates women closer to his son’s age than his own (his latest tart, Lacey, is played by “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” scene stealer Ari Graynor). But on a family trip to a trailer park in Ukiah, Calif., Nick meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), an aloof non-virgin who shares his hipster tastes and condescending attitude toward adults.
Like Charlie Bartlett, Twisp affects the vocabulary of a more enlightened soul, while his impetuous bad judgment belies his immaturity; Twisp’s best dialogue traces back to the books, though some will surely accuse Nash of Diablo Cody-esque embellishment.
When Twisp and Sheeni are separated, he devises an elaborate regimen of rebellion, thinking he can manipulate his mother into banishing him to Ukiah. Twisp’s partner in crime is Francois Dillinger, the cigarette-smoking, Jean-Paul Belmondo-inspired manifestation of his id (also played by Cera, with the fetching additions of a pencil moustache and spine), whose suggestions lead him on a path of grand theft auto, arson, drug use and cross-dressing.
Director Miguel Arteta is smart to play up Twisp’s outsider status (does any teen actually think he fits in?) before his actions spiral out of control, giving auds an anchor amid the tsunami of transgressive behavior that follows. Through it all, Twisp remains eminently relatable, even admirably proactive in his pursuit of Sheeni, and despite having popped his cherry in at least three previous films, Cera still comes across as asexual enough to excuse the character’s carnally motivated misdeeds.
Seducing Sheeni may be his aim, but there’s something chivalrous about the lengths to which the lad will go to earn that right, backed by Twisp’s quaint determination to marry the poor girl. Obstacles abound, of course. MTV and Fox produced a “Youth in Revolt” pilot a decade earlier, no doubt intending to spread Twisp’s many setbacks over a proper season, but the show fell through. In this condensed form, the plot feels episodic, but not in a bad way, with Arteta squeezing an impressive number of setpieces into 90 minutes. Well-placed animated sequences — a mix of stop-motion and CGI — keep things moving along at a perky clip.
Whereas the book grows tedious with the constant interruptions of every-seven-seconds sexual thoughts, the pic feels more innocent, focusing instead on Payne’s knack for unique detail and keenly observed human behavior. It doesn’t hurt that Fred Willard, Ray Liotta, Justin Long and Mary Kay Place are on hand to help make the eccentric ensemble credible. Events transpire in a quasi-retro twilight zone where cell phones don’t exist but Ashlee Simpson does, and the kids watch movies on DVD and collect music on vinyl. Michigan doubles for the Golden State, with production design and other departments supplying unobtrusive yet vital support throughout.