"Youth in Revolt" isn't bad -- the cast is too good for it to be bad -- but archly comic coming-of-age fables are tricky things, and this adaptation of the first three C.D. Payne stories about an Oakland teenager's improbable life, times, fantasies and picaresque sexual adventures does not precisely feel like This Year's Stuff. Still, I laughed a fair bit. That's no ringing endorsement, but it's January.
The movie seems like a re-release, somehow. Partly it's timing, and how long the picture has been on the shelf. Miguel Arteta (who directed "Chuck & Buck" and the effectively deadpan "The Good Girl") shot "Youth in Revolt" back when star Michael Cera was still, barely, a teenager (he'll be 22 this year). You sense in Cera's performance a determination to sound younger than he really is; though the character of hormonally wacked Nick Twisp is no longer a mere 14, as he was in the initial stories, the way Cera keeps his voice teetering, fervently, in his upper register it's as if he's trying to recapture his recently lost youth.
Cera is overexposed, no doubt. He's not blameless in that overexposure, and his range isn't the greatest, but as with Jesse Eisenberg (star of the recent, excellent
"Adventureland" and "Zombieland"), Cera's casual-seeming skill and paradoxically reticent showmanship are routinely taken for granted. Without Cera, "Youth in Revolt" wouldn't be much of anything, even with a supporting ensemble featuring Jean Smart and Steve Buscemi as his downmarket parents and a pleasing turn from Adhir Kalyan as Nick's schoolmate.
The film sands the rougher edges off its source material. As Nick's alter ego, a callous Frenchman (played also by Cera), pushes the milquetoast into various, flaming misdeeds, Nick's romance with his fellow trailer-park denizen (Portia Doubleday, a bright newcomer) becomes a beacon of hope in an EveryNerd's life. He drugs his beloved, nearly sets Berkeley, Calif., on fire and breaks various laws, but it's all for love. The narrative doesn't have much of a spine; it's more a string of vignettes, scripted by Gustin Nash, who wrote the genuinely lousy "Charlie Bartlett" and whose own sense of humor struggles a bit to find itself amid the book-wrangling chores. See "Charlie Bartlett" some time for comparison's sake, if you've time on your hands: It'll make you realize that an unevenly executed affair such as "Youth in Revolt" at least has a pulse.