Youth Is Not As Revolting As It Could Be

by |
01/13/2010 1:57 PM |

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Like Henry, I liked Youth in Revolt: Michael Cera gets to show some range, underplaying as the smug Mr. Hyde in pants whiter than Belmondo’s in Pierrot le fou (alongside the now de rigueur skinny-frightened act), and director Miguel Arteta again gets the most out of a lot of talented, singular supporting players given limited screen time. But—and I find myself agreeing with Anthony Lane of all people on this—I can’t help thinking that Arteta overidentifies with his main character’s perspective, making the movie softer and more flattering than it ought to be.

Both Cera’s Nick Twisp and Portia Doubleday’s love interest are adorably pretentious teens, who drop vintage names and defend their sense of themselves with a sense of superiority; both the lower-middle class child of divorce and the girl with the churchgoing parents get prissy and defensive whenever they sense a challenge from the world they mean to reject before it can reject them.

Cera especially, because he seems so self-deprecating and virginal, is meant to be sympathetic; we feel for his unrequited love, or at least frustrated horniness, because we all like to think of ourselves that way, as secretly more worthy than the world gives us credit for being.

Now, this may come as something of a surprise to you, given that I’m a professional film critic and everything, but I didn’t really date very much in high school. At the time, I chalked this up to the same thing Cera’s character does: the world, in particular its population of teenage girls, doesn’t know how to appreciate me yet. For now at least, the world thinks it’s desperate for the shallow affirmation of arrogant jocks.

This attitude is, of course, a very deep kind of vanity. It’s surprising, isn’t it, when you grow up and discover that, even as much of a suffering sensitive nerd as you fancied yourself to be, you’re just as capable of any lacrosse player of being mean, manipulative, self-centered, and so on. Maybe unattainable teen girls just pick the better-looking jerks?

At the outset of the film, Nick Twisp wonders why nice guys never get the girls; at the conclusion of the film, having contrived an alter ego to help him get in touch with his inner asshole and win the girl, he discovers that “Nick Twisp was enough” all along. The way Arteta closes in on this sentiment, it’s meant to be somewhat heartwarming.

But here’s what Nick Twisp does in the film—he wrecks both his parents’ cars; he and the girl manipulate their parents to be together; he further manipulates dimly witting accomplices to get her kicked out of boarding school.

He’s goaded, yes, by his alter ego, that smug Euro asshole in the white pants, but comes on. (The fact that his id gives him license to at last lash out at both of his divorced parents seems significant—like, yes, obviously, the calls are coming from inside the house.)

Youth in Revolt closes by rubber-stamping the lesson its protagonist thinks he’s learned: someday, someone will love you for who you are. But the conclusion Arteta should draw from his material is: you’re not as lovable as you flatter yourself to think.

4 Comment

  • I was bothered by how shocked Lane was that Cera’s character wasn’t actually as well-read as he liked to pretend, and that his love interest wasn’t as well-versed in the French New Wave as the posters on her wall would indicate. He fails to acknowledge that, at that age, the desire to self-identify as a particular type says more than the degree to which you’re justified in doing so. It’s like he’s never actually met or been a teenager. He drives me fucking insane.

  • Mark, I was also puzzled by the film’s conclusion. I saw very little evidence that “Nick Twisp was enough” and it seemed less like Areta was actively misreading the material (the movie makes fun of Cera’s character, perhaps more gently than the “normal” jerks, but certainly kids his affectations) and more like they were scrambling to find some kind of closure for a story that proceeds as a series of amusing adventures. I haven’t read the books, but I feel like if one of them ends with Nick being carted off to juvie, it could still be satisfying, but the movie felt like a disengenuous twist on Burn After Reading: “what have learned? Uhhh… to be yourself, I guess.”

    Mike, yeah, I actually thought the movie did a really nice job of portraying exactly what you describe, and while I couldn’t get behind the New Yorker’s subscription wall to read Lane’s review, I can imagine him willfully misinterpreting or missing that because it better fits his idea of movies in general as beneath him.

  • To be fair, Anthony Lane probably went directly from being a five-year-old in a sailor suit to Cambridge. But yeah, it’s a savvy bit of characterization, making Nick more well-read in theory than in practice (who among us didn’t live in fear, as a teen, of being quizzed on our alleged preferences?), rather than a mistake by the filmmakers.

  • Oh, and Jesse, didn’t see yours. I would say that in, as you say, “scrambling to find some kind of closure”, the move settles on an ending that sort of sells itself out, or at least sells itself short. I haven’t read the books either, maybe I should, but it sure feels like Arteta is misreading the script, at least.