Youth in Revolt begins like any other Michael Cera film. It has the same faded colour palette, earnest exclamations of indie-cool (this version of Cera wants to be a writer, thinks Ol’ Blue Eyes should be played on an hourly basis, and rents La Strada for fun) and has its protagonist endure the same wistful yearnings to escape his square, adolescent virginity.
Mercifully, director Miguel Arteta dispenses with all these bland pleasantries fairly efficiently, and what emerges from the wreckage (quite literally — half an hour in, Cera causes millions of dollars worth of damage when he blows up a trailer, a convertible and a storefront) is wholly unlike Juno or the execrable Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
Adapted from C.D. Payne’s influential 1993 novel, Cera plays Nick Twisp, who falls in love with a rather enigmatic, equally improbably-articulate girl named Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), almost immediately upon meeting her, during an encounter on holiday at a trailer park to which he has decamped with his mother and her trucker boyfriend to escape some angry sailors.
Soon realising Sheeni isn’t too interested in him (favouring her futurist poem-writing windsurfer boyfriend, Trent), Nick concocts an alter ego for himself, the rakish François Dillinger (also Cera, in what must be his first different role in years), who encourages the relationship forward with pseudo-suave aggression and a cigarette permanently dangling from his lips.
And from there, the story takes an odd turn, not entirely for the worst, as indignity upon indignity is heaped upon Nick, a few misguided attempts at romance spiral into a cross-country crime spree and a straightforward boy-meets-girl comedy is transformed into a mock-epic of Homeric proportions.
Arteta has had to abandon several of the peripheral plot elements of Payne’s original, but he succeeds in retaining the picaresque tone of the story and Nick’s character, who along with François, become a sort of cross between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and Bonnie and Clyde.
And, even though only half of Cera’s performance feels particularly original, he is still perfectly cast as both halves of Twisp — his impassive face and slightly pallid complexion are used to great effect, and the few truly excellent moments of visual comedy tend to arise from seeing him cowering somewhere in a state of near-undress, hands hovering protectively over his boxer shorts or wrapped uncomfortably around his chest. As Dillinger he is (rightly) more exaggerated and less believable, but no less enjoyable.
If it ever feels slightly strange that Cera is still playing sixteen year olds, the feeling does not last long. Supported by an excellent cast (which includes Ray Liotta, Fred Willard and Steve Buscemi in occasionally scene-stealing cameo roles), he carries the film so capably and to such enjoyable effect it almost erases any memory of his ersatz performances in Paper Heart or Nick and Norah.