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Originally published January 7, 2010 at 3:03 PM | Page modified January 7, 2010 at 3:57 PM

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Movie review

'Youth in Revolt': A funny, inventive take on teen angst

"Youth in Revolt" stars Michael Cera in his best performance to date, playing a restless teen so determined to win the heart of a girl (Portia Doubleday) and carve out a world of his own that he begins taking lessons in calculated villainy from an imaginary alter ego.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Youth in Revolt,' with Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Steve Buscemi, Fred Willard, Justin Long, Ray Liotta, M. Emmet Walsh, Mary Kay Place. Directed by Miguel Arteta, from a screenplay by Gustin Nash, based on novels by C.D. Payne. 90 minutes. Rated R for sexual content, language and drug use. Several theaters.

On a recent visit to Seattle, California writer C.D. Payne, author of the "Youth in Revolt" novels about restless teenage hero Nick Twisp, said during an interview he didn't know any adolescents at the time he wrote the series.

Instead, Payne said, he took inspiration from problems and conflicts familiar to most adults, and adapted those to the lives of young people who have only partial control over their destinies.

The result was a uniquely comic and compassionate perspective on adolescence that shines through the brightly imaginative, very funny film version of "Youth in Revolt."

The issues driving Nick (Michael Cera, in his best performance to date) to take desperate action in his life — trying to get free of his trashy mom (Jean Smart) and her loser boyfriends; getting support from his selfish dad (Steve Buscemi); overcoming his nice-guy limitations to aggressively win the heart of the beautiful Sheeni (Portia Doubleday) — might sound like kid stuff. But they weigh upon him with the urgency of a 50-year-old's midlife crisis.

That's precisely how screenwriter Gustin Nash and director Miguel Arteta ("Chuck and Buck") approach Nick: without condescension, yet with an appreciation of the agonizing ludicrousness of a boy caught (among other things) in his underwear trying to fake his own dramatic death.

There are several such outsize scenes in "Youth in Revolt" that invite unexpected belly laughs, a wonderful counterbalance to the greater delicacy surrounding Nick's attraction to Sheeni. On an unlikely beach vacation, Nick meets Sheeni, and the two instantly connect as postmodern disciples of mid-20th-century pop culture: Sinatra, singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, French New Wave films.

But while Nick fantasizes about their relationship as the brass ring of a hard-fought freedom, Sheeni — anxious to escape the Christian zealotry of her parents (M. Emmet Walsh, Mary Kay Place) — clings to a long-nurtured plan to flee to a private college and a French- speaking boyfriend.

Determined to change Sheeni's script, Nick invents a cad of an alter ego for inspiration: the mustachioed Francois (Cera), a projection of Nick's imagination but an uncensored avatar of eroticism and casual pathology beneath the hero's default sweetness. Some of the film's best moments find Nick and Francois in the same shot, the former horrified (yet impressed) by the latter's lack of inhibition.

Constant inventiveness is the lifeblood of "Youth in Revolt." Between delightful sequences of animation, vibrant performances by the likes of Justin Long, Fred Willard and Ray Liotta, and Arteta's mastery over comic tones ranging from the sensitive to the surreal, this is the rare movie one doesn't want to end.

Tom Keogh:

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