Youth in Revolt is one of a number of films-- and television shows—that apparently is meant to evoke some sort of darkly comic and satirical world and ends up invoking a nightmarish, demented reality filled with people I wouldn’t go near even if I was wearing protective, anti-cynicism gear. The film could have been a Sundance winner, or a blockbuster, or any number of Hollywood comedies. It has it’s roots not so much in the foreign films it playfully deals with as in American Beauty and Fight Club: it is about a place (reality), which is funny and mock-able to a point, but ends up being vapid, uncaring and defeatist, because that’s what people are like anyway.
The film approaches us as a clever and outrageous take on the familiar premise of the dork who can’t seem to lose his virginity. Michael Cera plays that dork, named Nick Twisp here, a bored sixteen-year old suburbanite who lives with his flakey mother and her overweight boyfriend (Zach Galfinakis). Nick mainly prefers classic French films like Breathless to mainstream fare, and gets ridiculed for it. His voice-over narration betrays a sense of having cooled to the idea of humanity so long ago, it’s hard for him to even laugh at it; and in this sense the film is very honest in the way it fits voiceover with theme and content. Nick, his mother, and her boyfriend go to a lakeside retreat for the weekend where he meets a stunningly beautiful girl named Sheeny (Portia Doubleday), interested in all the same things he is and fed up with her Christian parents. Nick finds his optimism about his sexual inexperience rising. After he returns to his suburb, Nick sets about finding a way to move back to the lakeside retreat to be near Sheeny, even if there is the complication of her boyfriend, Trent. To get back out there, he will invent a suave French persona named Francois, who assists him in wrecking his mother’s ex-boyfriend’s car, so that his mother will kick him out of the house to go live with his father.
The rebellion implied in the title kicks in to high gear at this point, and it is a cinematic rebellion that bears some resemblance to—what else—certain Godard films in which the hero is on the run, the car is a central object, and the girl is always gotten; but not without a lot of postmodern cross-referencing to tag along. But while the parallels to Godard’s films are no doubt intentional, the tone of Youth in Revolt is not so much intellectually ballistic as it is rude, ironic and, well, predictable. Here we have a girl who acts so artificially hip and so teasing that we are ready to scold Nick for falling for her, beautiful as she is. Yet in Nick himself, we have a kid whose idea of revolt is to sedate his love with sleeping pills until she is expelled from her French-language boarding school. In his mother we have a woman unbearably trashy and self-centered and in Sheeny’s parents we have two obnoxious, shallow Christians. Grownups are a drag and kids are just unstable. The film depicts a world going to hell in a hand-basket, not an energized uprising.
Of course, you are meant to laugh at this. The film does manage to recognize the nightmarish of its humor to an extent. When Nick drives his car off a cliff only to crash it in to the shallow water below rather than sink it as he intended, the police on the other side see a confused kid wearing only boxers run up to the edge to see what has gone wrong, and it is an unexpected slapstick foible that manages to do the foibles that came before one better. And every scene with Fred Willard is a delight; as Nick’s hippy- activist neighbor who manages to get him out of one rough spot only to end up shirtless and zonked out on mushrooms later, Willard managed to squeeze a spirit in to the film that is not a pathetic caricature or a shallow pincushion; he is an earnest guy who is a total screw-up, in the great comic spirit that runs through Keaton and Sellers. Yet the other characters are not meant to amount to much, and as a result, the laughs may come up short or be stifled. This is a film that handles people callously, with cold hands. Perhaps this is best exemplified in the way that certain characters are picked up and then dropped, without any explanation or any sense that we should care; an Indian student whom Nick befriends and a grouchy girl who briefly helps him in his schemes are dropped off the storyline from a far greater height than Nick’s car was from the cliff. It’s also a great height to fall for American Comedies.