It's too bad Youth in Revolt, the new film by director Miguel Arteta and his first feature since 2002's charming The Good Girl, is an adaptation. If Arteta and screenwriter Gustin Nash had been able to free themselves from the cutesy confines of the source novel by C.D. Payne, they would have had a solid teen story on their hands.
In the film adaptation, as in the book, shy, feminized loser Nick Twisp (Michael Cera, of course) fantasizes about girls he's afraid to talk to and suffers condescendingly under the roof of his trashy, insecure mom and her never- ending parade of worthless lovers. When the most recent of those stand-in father figures (Zach Galifianakis) runs into trouble with some angry sailors, Nick and the gang retreat to a trailer park camp where Nick meets a forward, equally intelligent girl, Sheeni (Portia Doubleday). When Nick fails to seal the deal with Sheeni and, furthermore, moves away from her, he devises his own bad-boy alter ego, Francois Dillinger, who gives him a mighty push into rebellion in the hopes that it will solve his girl problems.
This is where the story congeals into a sometimes sweet and other times raucous comedy, yet also loses its grip. Arteta, by way of faithfulness to the book, pours on needless indie affectations like animated interludes, an off-kilter anti-folk soundtrack, and ridiculous discussions of Godard versus Fellini or Serge Gainsbourg versus Frank Sinatra in which Nick and Sheeni impress themselves by speaking in overly articulate, hyperliteral faux-teen blurbs.
The biggest obstacle in the way of the plot is the very selling point of Nick's alter ego. It's amusing to watch a mustachioed Cera whip Nick into shape at times, but completely unnecessary. The film, already slight at 90 minutes, would have worked even better had Nick simply decided to try some wrong for himself. We don't need to see the devil on his shoulder to know why he would want to rebel (to win Sheeni's love) or to enjoy watching it go so horribly wrong. Francois diverts our attention and sympathies from Nick. Cera, who can sell timid just by staring at a camera, does an admirable, even nuanced job with his nerdy character ' why can't we stick with him?
Obviously that's because the source material doesn't, and it's a demerit on Arteta's part that he didn't have the guts to deviate from it. There's hardly an author alive who wouldn't advise a filmmaker to make an adaptation his or her own and not get bogged down in the text; surely 60-year-old Payne feels the same way?
Youth in Revolt succeeds at ending in a place so far beyond where it begins that it forces reflection on what a crazy journey the main character has taken. That's not an easy thing to pull off without going overboard in outrageousness or being false in character. Revolt threads that needle so well that it's infuriating it had to sully itself with hipster conventions and a dual-personality gimmick that adds nothing to the mix. If you want youthful revolt, start with a healthy dose of unfaithfulness.