Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Youth in Revolt" Review

"Youth in Revolt" had enormous potential as the anti-indie indie. My disdain for the stale, 'quirky' writing and cutesy filmmaking that characterize modern independent filmmaking has been well documented, and the majority of director Miguel Arteta's R-rated film challenges those conventions. That the prince of Sundance himself, Michael Cera, stars in the picture creates an immediate expectation for its content, which is dashed even before the projection of the first image.

Heavy breathing, a corporate logo. We open on Cera as wimpishly named protagonist Nick Twisp masturbating to a 'Hustler' magazine. "Paper Heart" this is not.

The film, based on a novel by C.D. Payne, is refreshing for its willingness to portray characters with conflicted morality, offering an account of the teenage experience that doesn't just jack "Juno's" offbeat precociousness. The disturbing trend in recent indie comedies, emerging probably with "Napoleon Dynamite," has been to sculpt worlds bereft of genuine character conflict. This architectural sentimentality punctuates a Mr. Rogers-esque coda: everyone is special in their own special way.

In "Youth in Revolt," Twisp creates an alter-ego for himself in order to win the heart of his trailer-park sweetheart Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday). Enter Francois Dillinger. The character, also Cera, but accentuated by a pencil-thin mustache and eternally lit cigarette, is an exercise in antithesis for Twisp. While under the sway of his deadpan Frenchman persona, the character engages in some legitimately shocking behavior, the hilarious highlight of which is causing a multimillion-dollar fire in a sleepy metropolitan cafe via a stolen trailer with the words, "God's perfect asshole," spray-painted on the side. That phrase alone is too brazenly vulgar to have belonged to any other indie film this year. The latter half of "Youth in Revolt" largely consists of Twisp/Dillenger digging himself into deeper and deeper criminal trouble, all with the intention of winning over the elusive Saunders. Other memorable sequences include a half-naked escape from a French prep school, grand theft auto, and cross-dressing.

These are the sort of legitimately quirky plot points indie auteurs should aspire to, and they make a huge difference in shaping a memorable experience, but unfortunately, even "Youth in Revolt" fails to follow through. By the end, the raunchy, surprising, and darkly comedic elements cave to a typically Hollywood schmaltzy ending. Twisp is arrested for his crimes, but still gets the girl and learns a lesson: Sheeni didn't love him for Dillenger, she loved him for Twisp all along. She's going to wait for him to get out of juvenile hall (it shouldn't take that long!). Give me a break.

A riskier ending could have forgiven the film its more minor flaws, which instead make "Youth in Revolt" a tricky film to score. It's a little overlong, perhaps more a function of uneven pacing than the actual running time, and the use of animation for a few of the sequences doesn't serve any immediate purpose beyond servicing a faux home-made aesthetic.

Those as sick of even hearing the word "indie" as I am certainly won't lose any sleep over skipping "Youth in Revolt." Still, it's nice to see Cera branch out a bit, even if Dillenger is a decidedly undemanding role, and the body of the film takes more risks than any mainstream independent comedy in recent memory.

It may not be the anti-indie indie, but it's not another clone.


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