"Youth in Revolt" stars Michael Cera as a hyper-intelligent 16-year-old virgin desperate to escape his bubble of a boring life. If that description sounds familiar, it's because the "Arrested Development" star has done this routine before. But he does it well, and this charming romantic comedy offers no exception. In fact, Miguel Arteta's direction and the details of the role allow Cera to slightly expand his range. There are hints of a versatile actor here, but the framework sticks to a familiar pattern.
Adapted from C.D. Payne's hit book, "Youth in Revolt" revolves around Nick Twisp (Cera), who spends his time drifting between his non-supportive parents (Steve Buscemi and Jean Smart) while fawning over Frank Sinatra and foreign film. During a fleeting vacation in the woods, he meets his soulmate, Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), another artsy character who demands that Nick turn "bad" in order to win her heart. As a result, he creates a chain-smoking, liberated alter ego named Francois, stirring up trouble with comically violent results. The movie takes this cue to become the "Fight Club" of the "Superbad" set. Whether or not that description settles with you, "Youth in Revolt" contains enough zany amusements to sustain it through some of the rockier moments. Arteta uses a variety of animated sequences and clever music cues to bring us inside Twisp's world (much as the book used fragments of his journal), so anything goes.
Still, "Youth in Revolt" is less a major laugh fest than a string of unique gags superimposed on the typical coming-of-age comedy dynamic. The dialogue often sounds too clean and sophisticated, and Cera's transition into a free-falling risk taker never seems fully believable. But it ends on a surprisingly bittersweet note, leading to a genuinely likable climax that blends with the eccentric atmosphere preceding it. Arteta ably guides the plot through its vignette-style progression, using Cera's deadpan voiceover as the principal tone-setter. The movie lives inside the head of its conflicted lead and makes us care about his crazy universe, but it lacks the final step that would give it a lasting impression. Rather than defeat or combine with the Francois persona, Nick merely turns his back on it. In the end, audiences are looking at the same Cera they already knew. The accidental secret of "Youth in Revolt," then, is that it ultimately embraces tradition.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE's coverage of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. "Youth in Revolt" opens in theaters this Friday.