If Charles Dickens had lived in the 1990s, David Copperfield might have sounded like Nick Twisp – and “David Copperfield” might have ended up like C.D. Payne’s multi-volume novel, collected as “Youth in Revolt.”
Indeed, Miguel Arteta’s film of “Youth in Revolt” (opening Friday 1/8/10) has a strong Dickensian flavor to its plotting, as Nick works his way through both the twisted landscape of suburban Oakland, Calif., and the crowded byways of his own psyche.
As played by Michael Cera, Nick is a kid who lives in his own head, particularly when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex. Like many teen protagonists, he has an uncomfortable relationship with his own virginity, i.e., he’s eager to lose its acquaintance. But his colorful family life serves as an impediment for Nick in his efforts to fulfill his quest.
His mother (Jean Smart) has dumped Nick’s dad (Steve Buscemi) and moved in with a questionable character named Jerry (Zach Galifianakis), who has issues of his own with the law. When Jerry drags the family up into the mountains for a vacation at a friend’s cabin (in fact, a skeevy mobile home in an otherwise respectable trailer park), Nick feels bereft – until he meets Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), an adventurous female resident of the same trailer park.
Sheeni is not without her own baggage: a devoutly religious set of parents and a handsome and accomplished (but thankfully absent) boyfriend, to name two. But she and Nick are on the same wavelength about books and movies and the essential coolness of France. She seems perfect, except …
Like a true Dickensian hero, Nick finds himself torn from Sheeni by his mother, who takes him back to Oakland. Nick breaks free of his parents, only to discover that Sheeni has been sent to a private school. Now what?
His only solution is to create an alter-ego, to help him be so bad (not a natural impulse for Nick) that his mother and her new boyfriend, a cop named Lance (Ray Liotta), will send him to private school as well. So from Nick’s head emerges Francois Dillinger, a mustached and cigarette-smoking bad boy who does all the things Nick wouldn’t do but wants to.
“Youth in Revolt” winds up as a picaresque tale in which Nick hops, skips and jumps from scrape to scrape with a variety of funny accomplices and nemeses while pursuing his one true love. Arteta, whose specialty has been uncomfortable comedy like “The Good Girl,” is in a more antic mode here, blending slapstick with social satire. He finds just the right tone for a film in which the main character takes himself seriously but has trouble convincing the rest of the world to do the same.
At some point in the future, Michael Cera may be seen as an actor emblematic of his time, in the same way that Eddie Bracken was in the mid-1940s or Richard Benjamin was in the early 1970s. He’s at once timeless and completely of his time, a protagonist who seems too timid to act, making every action surprising and often funny. I know people who love him and people who can’t stand him. I find myself laughing more often than I expect at his off-rhythm delivery and his casual sharpness that comes wrapped in the softest possible tones. Doing double duty as Francois, Cera achieves unexpected heights of haughty disdain.
Doubleday has an ambiguous quality that works for a character who is meant to keep Nick guessing as to her attentions and affections. Is she into him? Isn’t she? Davenport brings just the right seductive sense of mystery to the performance to tantalize both Nick and the audience.
The film is packed with delightful performances by recognizable faces in smaller roles, including Buscemi and Smart as his parents, Liotta as the bullying cop, Galifianakis, Fred Willard, Justin Long and newcomer Adhir Kalyan as a sex-crazed buddy who accompanies Nick on a mishap-packed odyssey to find Sheeni at the private school.
Life isn’t meant to be lived carefully – so sometimes you have to unleash the inner animal, or the inner Francois. “Youth in Revolt” is about making the grand gesture, even if it’s only as grand as a teen-ager can imagine or manage.