One fortunate byproduct of a mostly nonfiction reading diet? Never allowing a fanboy’s eye to cloud a movie adaptation. In fact, Moneyball remained a contender for the first “read before you see” for me, after I passed up favorable female-male ratios at a The Time Traveler’s Wife screening. (Actually, the “winner” was I Love You, Beth Cooper a few months back, which stumbled about in teen movie homages without transcending them, to slightly worse affect than the book I enjoyed.)
But Youth In Revolt remains a different story, as it always has been. My late Aunt Becky gave me the book when I was 14 or 15, mysterious in the way that any book you’ve never heard of might be when received as a birthday present. I managed to put down my library-loaned Ray Bradbury collections long enough to open the daunting first page. By the last page, I had a book to call my favorite.
A wordy, literate journal writer like Nick Twisp appealed to my intellectual (or, more harshly, haughty) nature, and the way his mind vacillated between cultural criticism and pornographic pursuits legitimized a similar pull any dork with a library card might feel when the hormone equation changes*. Whereas my dalliances mostly involved pictures of Pamela Anderson procured through newsgroups on America Online, Twisp’s adventures appeal to the repressed thrill-seeker in any teen.
Much of that appeal can be attributed to author C.D. Payne eschewing any sense that a 14-year-old might not use such overblown writing. Payne lets Twisp know way too much in one entry, then knowingly places him completely out of his element in the next. The concept rewards readers both young and old, as Twisp turns into either a wish fulfillment for our 15-year-old selves or an embarrassing photo of what might have been for the 29-year-old self. A character like Sheeni remains both completely impossible and an amalgam of all the “unique” intellectual girls one comes across before they realize there are quote marks around that uniqueness.
The sexual nature of the plot, the unwieldy length and an intricate plot all worked to eliminate any thought that the book even could be adapted. And after having watched the movie on opening night, it took a great idea and many little failures to do so.
The great idea? Turning Twisp’s alter-ego into a different version of Michael Cera altogether. Cera’s psycho blue eyes, knowing puffs off a cigarette and a mustache built for tickling as Francois make for the best bursts of comedy in a film otherwise filled with more observational or deadpan humor. These moments interrupt a string of quotes and scenes pulled lovingly from the source material. Yet, while a reader of the book can appreciate an appearance by Lefty and his girl troubles with Millie and erectile dysfunction, his scenes prove completely unnecessary to the plot and the characterization of Twisp.
When screenwriter Gustin Nash and director Miguel Arteta don’t work strictly by the book, their choices are suspect. In particular, I didn’t understand bits of animation/claymation found in the opening credits and during a travel montage. One could surmise that the inspiration might come from the movies of Savage Steve Holland in the mid-1980s. But the story just isn’t madcap enough to handle these stylistic devices. The filmmakers could have satisfied their source material appreciation with a well-constructed background montage, which would have better hinted at the oddball world surrounding the main characters in Youth in Revolt.
The depiction of Sheeni Saunders by Portia Doubleday falls somewhere in between a success and failure, which should be considered a win for this movie. Frankly, it’s a character that exists somewhere outside the capabilities of any actress, with her mix of confidence, manipulation and mystery. She’s the belle of the Scholastic Bowl, and the alluring Doubleday does capably tap into some of her coolness and her … uh … hotness. Still, the infuriating (and best) part of Sheeni in the book is how she’s kept at arm’s length by the first-person writing style of Nick in his journal. A movie can’t really afford to do that, especially when the plot must be wrapped up in 90 minutes. I loved the idea floated by Cera that the source material might be served well by a television adaptation, as it could flirt with this convention while giving the likes of Fred Willard, Steve Buscemi, Jean Smart and Ari Graynor more space to do their thing.
As much as I might quibble with the adaptation, my quick-reference knowledge of the plot still relented long enough to earn a few legitimate laughs and no consequential groans. Through the end, this valiant attempt knew its audience. Rather than giving in to the conventions of the teen comedy with a pop-punk jam or a Frank Sinatra tune that Nick Twisp might pick out, the filmmakers chose “Popular Mechanics for Lovers” by Beulah … from an album that would rank in my top five of the 2000s. I was helplessly caught up in a target market.
* Reading through the book, I completely forgot the other reason I related to Nick Twisp – he had the same August 1 birthday as me! Yes, it’s a date shared by a fictional character, Francis Scott Key, Coolio and myself (in no particular order of importance).