Youth in Revolt was set first to open this fall, but it was a smart move to wait: It's a sweetly dippy underachiever better suited to small-stakes January. Taken from C.D. Payne's early '90s epistolary novel, Youth in Revolt chronicles the tortured life of Nick Twisp (Michael Cera), a teen living mostly friendlessly in Oakland, Calif. Mom (Jean Smart) runs through a string of loutish boyfriends; Dad (Steve Buscemi, in an ill-defined role) is schtupping a blond closer to Nick's age than his own (in fact, she's played by Ari Graynor, who was the funny-drunk compatriot of Cera in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist).
Nick's life takes a turn for the better, however, when a family outing to a trailer park puts him in the path of Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday). She's sharp, educated and cool to touch, at home in bikinis and '50s shirtdresses. She drives Nick wild, and she even lets him kiss her some, but only close-mouthed stuff. Which is for the best, I suppose. One can't quite imagine Cera, ever baby-faced and halting, jamming his tongue down a girl's throat.
Cera is fine here, and his range broadens some when Nick invents an alter ego named Franois - chain-smoking, troublemaking - because, as Nick puts it, "my one and only love wants me to be bad." Gustin Nash's script consistently delivers on situational laughs, even if he never shades in the characters. And given the edgy bent of director Miguel Arteta's standout earlier work (The Good Girl, Chuck & Buck), there's a surprising lack of bite to the film.
What Youth in Revolt most seems to be channeling is the spirit of Savage Steve Austin and his quintessentially '80s artifacts Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer: virginal smart alecks, fun with mixed media, and a healthy high/low humor spread. Arteta's take offers nothing particularly riotous, but it's an enjoyable enough exercise in teen angst triumphing.