Youth in Revolt
Exploring the sexuality of teenagers is, for some fuzzy moralistic reason, a faux pas. We can acknowledge as a society that young boys and girls have sexual thoughts, and once they pass puberty, those thoughts dominate their lives, even if they don’t know how to deal with them. Teenage sexual desire is a universal feeling, no matter how much guilt and shame is placed on it, so it’s confounding that Adrian Lyne had so much trouble getting his $50 million 1997 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita distributed because of fears it would promote, well, nothing specific, really. It’s not a movie for pedophiles because it doesn’t embrace or condone the behavior, as Humbert Humbert is ultimately punished for his delusions and his need to keep Lolita all to himself. If Lyne’s film has been badly made, it would have just been tawdry exploitation, but the fact that the movie works means that an audience could sympathize with Humbert Humbert (played superbly by Jeremy Irons) in possibly finding Lolita sexually tempting, which I guess makes all involved, to the filmmaker, the actors, the viewer, unforgivable perverts.
Such skittishness no doubt influenced the decision to turn Nick Twisp, the one-track-minded 14 year-old hero of C.D. Payne’s hilarious and insightful Youth in Revolt novels, into a 16 year-old* in the movie adaptation, I guess because age-of-consent is 16 in certain US states. It takes the edge off the opening scene of Nick, played by Michael Cera (interviewed about the movie here), furiously masturbating, or pretty much the entire rest of the movie, which, with its constant sexual frustration, plays like a better made and cast version of an 80’s teen exploitation film. It’s a shame because director Miguel Arteta also made Chuck & Buck, in which the pedophile undertones were the least of what made its stunted 27 year-old oblivious stalker lead character, creepy. Chuck & Buck is the ultimate black comedy seat squirmer, so if anyone was suited to make a direct adaptation of the Youth in Revolt novels, it’s Arteta.
The fact that Cera seems well suited for the film because of the constant lost teenager look in his eyes is what saves Youth in Revolt from being a stale and tame movie considering the ripe subject matter. This, despite the hovering doom of twee established with the movie’s claymation credits, a la Cera’s 2009 film Paper Heart. But Arteta commits to the lasciviousness, turning the film into more of a self-aware, comedic adaptation of Scott Spencer’s Endless Love, which was originally botched by Franco Zeffireli. Spencer’s novel is about a sexually curious teenage couple and the desperate things the boy will do to be with the girl when her parents interfere, including burning down their house. The film of Youth in Revolt takes pieces of the first few Payne novels and gives us Nick, more precocious and generic than the uppity trailer park redneck of the novel, lusting after the blond, lithe tease Sheeni Saunders (played by Portia Doubleday as if she were Sissy Spacek Jr.) and the criminal things he’ll do to be with her, including burning down an entire town.
The change of tone and attitude from the novel thoroughly affects the dialogue, turning Nick’s fear and trepidation into sarcasm and smarm, such as the way that he and Sheeni tend to speak in very specific semantic terms, like “exposed areas,” or simplified nudge-nudge dialogue such as, “yesterday, the most interesting thing in my world was Jerry being beaten up by three sailors.” Indeed, Jerry, who is Nick’s mother’s low-rent sleazy boyfriend, as played by official movie savior Zach Galfianakis, is more interesting than most of the plot heavy mechanics that involve Nick. And the rest of the supporting cast, including M. Emmet Walsh and Mary Kay Place as Sheeni’s Bible-tyrant parents, Ray Liotta as a slimy cop, Steve Buscemi as Nick’s cheapskate dad, and especially Fred Willard as Nick’s clueless former hippie neighbor is no help to making us care about Cera at the center of the film.
Cera simply doesn’t have enough dimensions and so Youth in Revolt devolves into a lot of slapstick without any edge**, and some sporadically funny but not uproarious jokes, and an episodic nature that prohibits any momentum. The film’s rather short length (a rushed 90 minutes) hints that producer Harvey Weinstein meddled once again, but at least the ending doesn’t cop out completely. The way the movie plays now, Nick’s behavior isn’t excused, but the message seems to more obscure than that. Seeing the enormous amount of destruction caused by Nick, property and otherwise, it appears that lust is pretty bad for the environment.
* No matter what star Michael Cera said in the interview I was part of here, about not specifying Nick’s age, in the movie his parents have no qualms about allowing him to drive, which isn’t possible if he were under 16.
** There’s a scene in the novel where Nick, at Sheeni’s behest, has snuck into the trailer park’s women’s bathroom. He ends up in a shower stall with an older lady (who amidst all the steam he thought might have been Sheeni), who gets freaked out by his presence, slips, and as she’s falling she reaches out to brace her fall, grabs Nick’s erection.