A Revolting 'Youth,' With A Surprising Charm

W Michael Cera and Portia Doubleday i i

hide captionFrench Twist: As Nick Twisp, Michael Cera (with Portia Doubleday, right) confronts the usual teen sexual insecurities. He just has a Gallic alter-ego to help.

Chuy Chavez/Dimension Films
W Michael Cera and Portia Doubleday

French Twist: As Nick Twisp, Michael Cera (with Portia Doubleday, right) confronts the usual teen sexual insecurities. He just has a Gallic alter-ego to help.

Chuy Chavez/Dimension Films

Youth In Revolt

  • Director: Miguel Arteta
  • Genre: Teen Comedy
  • Running Time: 90 minutes

Rated R: Sexual situations, slapstick violence, profanity

With: Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Zach Galifianakis, Erik Knudsen

Michael Cera might be the least sexually threatening juvenile in the history of sex comedy. He's thin and hairless and has zero muscle tone and a high head-voice that an 18-century castrato would have killed for.

To avoid projecting hysteria in the face of women he desires, he affects a glassy deadpan. Yet he speaks very fast and with startling precision, as if he hopes his hyper-articulateness will cover for the body he can't control.

Cera was touchingly tremulous in Superbad and somewhat inexplicable in Juno — so scared of the heroine's pregnancy he seemed unworthy of her. But in Youth in Revolt he has his best vehicle: It's a sterling pedestal for his brand of sexual panic.

The movie is based on C.D. Payne's novel Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp. The name Twisp is inspired; it evokes wispy inexperience. In Nick's narration in the film — excerpts from his journal — he tells us he's a virgin, that no female is interested in him, and that having sex is the goal of his life.

His divorced mother, played by Jean Smart, has taken up with a hairy slob of a truck driver (Zach Galifianakis), who one day decides they'll take a vacation. Their journey from Oakland, Calif., to a trailer park in upstate Ukiah is rendered in Claymation — one of many whimsical touches that lift Youth in Revolt from the mundane to the surreal.

Upon arrival, Nick is smitten by the delightful Portia Doubleday as the teasing, equally hyper-articulate Sheeni Saunders, who has Nick apply sunscreen to her exposed flesh and marvels at his physiological response. She has a boyfriend, though, an Adonis and Renaissance man. For a host of reasons, she suggests the wimpy Nick become a bad boy. She finds everything French a turn-on, so Nick concocts a dangerous, Frenchy alter-ego, played by Cera with a pencil mustache.

There's no escapade in Youth in Revolt you haven't seen before, but no teen sex film has this mix of farce and fever-dream. Director Miguel Arteta keeps the action hurtling forward as Gustin Nash's script piles on crisis after crisis to the brink of absurdism — calamities that Nick leaves behind as his drive to have Sheeni propels him on. He ends up running from police in his undies and at one point a dress; in classic screwball style, his libido both empowers and emasculates him. But when he tells her he'd like to tickle her bellybutton from the inside and she gasps in pleasure at his newfound effrontery, the humiliations he has gone through seem worth it.

Youth in Revolt is one of several recent films to take coming-of-age comedy to a surreal plane. Superbad was a dark odyssey into the American libido, and the neglected Gentlemen Broncos was a Mormon study in sexual sublimation.

But I like this breed of dirty movie. It goes beyond leering, beyond sexism, to the core tension of a culture that ricochets between Puritanism and promiscuity. Of course, these are movies made by and about straight males. The hope is that women directors will soon show teenage boys what they're up against — along with the anxieties that, despite la difference, they have in common.

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