Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Blame the French: Youth in Revolt

French hipsters would ordinarily make terrible role models for most teenagers. However, the tragically nice Nick Twisp is different. He needs to learn how to be bad if he wants to win back the girl and his self-esteem. Indeed, Twisp takes his inspiration where he can, including the French Nouvelle Vague in Miguel Arteta’s surprisingly funny Youth in Revolt (trailer here), which opens nationally this Friday.

If truth be told, young Twisp is probably entitled to a little acting out. Jerry, his divorced mother’s slovenly boy friend, has just dragged them out of town to his ramshackle mobile home to avoid some dodgy trouble. Yet, to young Twisp’s shock and delight, the girl of his dreams happens to live in the nicest trailer in the park—a two story model with a genuine pipe organ installed. Her name is Sheeni Saunders and she is way out of his league. Not only does she already have a model boyfriend, she is also a fluent Francophile (a picture of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless even hangs in her bedroom). Still, the linguistically challenged Twisp plugs away all summer, successfully developing a kind-of sort-of romantic relationship.

Just as he seems to be winning Saunders’s heart, Jerry’s iffy affairs necessitate a quick move back to Berkley, but Twisp just cannot let go of Saunders. After all, they have similar taste in music and movies, and of course she is very cute. Together they hatch a simple plan. First, they must find Twisp’s deadbeat dad a job near Saunders. Then the heartsick lad has to behave so badly, his mother will send off to dear old dad. This proves more difficult, so Twisp invents Francois, his jaded French alter-ego to do all the bad deeds he just can’t do.

What makes Revolt work is the pleasing chemistry of its two winning leads. In spite of the acts of insanity Twisp commits via his Francois persona, the audience always roots for him to win over Saunders. True, Michael Cera is more than a little over-exposed right now, but this is the Cera of Arrested Development and Juno, not the Cera of Year One. He really is quite likable as Twisp, while simultaneously playing Francois with admirable restraint (and honestly, how can you dislike someone who wreaks havoc on the city of Berkley?). Throughout the film, he is effectively balanced by newcomer Portia Doubleday, who brings a charm and vitality to Saunders that makes Twisp’s borderline obsession seem almost reasonable.

In contrast, Revolt’s supporting characters are more of a mixed bag. Regrettably, Saunders’s parents are just tiresome Hollywood caricatures of Evangelicals and the usually compulsively watchable Steve Buscemi is utterly wasted in the pedestrian role of Twisp’s father. Still, Fred Willard supplies a welcome jolt of madness in a brief but memorable appearance.

Boasting a clever script adapted by David Permut from C.D. Payne’s cult novel and some distinctive animated sequences produced by Peter Sluszka, Revolt delivers a number of legitimately big laughs. Yet, despite the frequently black comedy running amok on screen, Arteta keeps the mood feeling light and effervescent.

Altogether, Revolt is an unexpectedly smart and satisfying take on the traditional teenager coming-of-age comedy. It is just a funny film, distinguished by its heart and love for French cinema. It opens Friday (1/8) in New York at the Regal Union Square and AMC Empire.

(Photo: Chuy Chávez / Dimension Films, 2009)