Sometime after Porky’s and before American Pie, novelist C.D. Payne rehabilitated the horny teen boy genre with Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp, a 500-page picaresque told by a sex-obsessed fourteen-year-old (pardon the redundancy). Seventeen years later, indie filmmaker Miguel Arteta has delivered the film version, and while the novel’s cult may prove hard to please, Youth in Revolt is a pleasant diversion from the lowest-common-denominator, airbrushed Hollywood teen sex comedy.
Aged up a couple of years, the screen Nick comes in the form of Michael Cera, moviedom’s witty wimp du jour. In its broad strokes, the story remains intact: Nick longs to lose his virginity, and he sets his sights on one Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), the incongruously self-possessed daughter of Bible-thumping trailer park dwellers. A Francophile, Sheeni listens to Serge Gainsbourg records and coyly comes hither to her smart but awkward suitor. Though also a vinyl fan, Nick’s a Sinatra man, perhaps hoping some suavity will rub off. Quite the contrary, Nick is first heard rubbing one out while Frank, in close-up, smiles from the sleeve of Nice `N' Easy.
That’s the sort of irreverent audio-visual gag that’s Arteta’s stock in trade. Although Youth in Revolt has quirky comic affectations, the subdued styles of Arteta (Chuck & Buck) and Cera (Superbad) keep the film grounded, proving that the director and star are as well-matched as Nick and Sheeni. The star-crossed would-be lovers face plenty of obstacles, beginning with Nick’s divorced parents. “Excessively nice,” Nick hatches a plan to turn bad and thus be sent from his mother (Jean Smart) to his father (Steve Buscemi), who lives closer to Sheeni. To get up the gumption, Nick fashions a devilish French alter ego named François Dillinger, ever-ready to counsel badness.
Nick’s adventures take him around Northern California (Oakland, Santa Cruz, and Ukiah are points of interest) and expose him to a variety of comical weirdos: Ray Liotta and Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) as unpleasant boyfriends to Nick’s mother, the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh as Sheeni’s gruff father, Fred Willard as a neighborly oddball, and Justin Long as Nick’s romantic competition.
The film of Youth in Revolt isn’t a world-beater, and it may not stick in the mind very long, but it still has something about it. If it were a person, you’d want it to be your friend. It’s a sure thing that none of the Porky’s sequels include a discussion of “percussive futurist poetry” or this appraisal of sex: “It's a wonder humankind has been able to construct any civilization at all with this monumental distraction at hand." Call this one the thinking boy’s sex romp.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]