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MOVIE REVIEW: Cera tries to break nice-guy mold in 'Youth in Revolt'

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

Youth in Revolt (R)

3 stars out of 4

In the space of just two years, the 21-year-old Michael Cera has established himself as the go-to nice guy arthouse movie teen. The characters he plays are sometimes dim, always timid and virtually interchangeable. Even when appearing in the recent documentary "Paper Heart" as himself, Cera essentially duplicates his cloyingly meek screen persona.

At this point in his career, the only thing Cera could do to break free of one of the strongest examples of typecasting in movie history would be to play a crack-smoking serial killer. Luckily for him and us, Cera gets about halfway there in "Youth in Revolt."

Nick Twisp (Cera) lives in central California with his divorced mother Estelle (Jean Smart). He worships Frank Sinatra, artsy literature and makes himself feel better about his virginity by spending time with Lefty (Erik Knudsen), his best friend and the only guy more pathetic than him.

During a trip to a trailer park in Ukiah with Estelle and one of her revolving-door boyfriends, Nick meets Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), the daughter of Bible-thumping parents and a girl who can't wait to turn 18 and move to France.

A budding vamp and shrewd opportunist, Sheeni quickly wraps the susceptible Nick around her finger and coos that if he were as dangerous as her French boyfriend, he could easily find his way into her heart. Without giving anything away here, it doesn't take long for Nick -- in cahoots with his dastardly evil alter ego Francois Dillinger -- to commit a serious crime and get one step closer to securing Sheeni's affections.

Based on the novel by C.D. Payne, the film is a fitting companion piece to screenwriter Gustin Nash's similar and highly underrated "Charlie Bartlett" from last year with a less smart lead character. Though not nearly as twisted as we would like, Nash's script at least affords Cera the chance to do something other than to look winsome and vulnerable.

A chain smoker with a pencil-thin moustache, Francois (like Brad Pitt in "Fight Club") prods a complacent guy into doing something substantial with his life, even if it is, you know, illegal. Francois is easily the most interesting character Cera has played since his stint on "Arrested Development."

As two of Estelle's boyfriends, Ray Liotta and Zach Galifianakis ("The Hangover") turn in effective albeit fleeting performances as does Steve Buscemi as Nick's father and Fred Willard as his loopy, borderline psycho neighbor. As good as the supporting men are, it is the virtually unknown Doubleday who owns the movie.

Apple pie cute with seriously dark undercurrents, Sheeni is the kitten-with-a-whip she-devil almost every young man foolishly falls for at some point in his life. In the hands of less-competent teen performers, Sheeni could have been a monster, or even worse, a caricature. But Doubleday plays it straight and never gets ahead of herself. This is an actress with major talent, and she will be going places.

Doubleday owes a great deal to director Miguel Arteta who did the same thing for her as he did with Jennifer Aniston in "The Good Girl." It's next to impossible to craft a likable female antagonist that doesn't fall into any number of off-putting cliches, and Arteta and Doubleday pull it off splendidly.

Like Nick's crime, the movie's ending is something that wouldn't likely happen in the real world and robs the film of a great deal of its deserved luster. On top of that, it suggests a possible sequel. Apart from these two huge glitches, "Youth in Revolt" is one of the better efforts in the "teen angst" sub-genre. (Dimension)