Hormones can wreak havoc on the teenage brain causing it to contemplate all sorts of mischief in its drive to sate its carnal appetite. In the R-rated teen comedy Youth in Revolt directed by Miguel Arteta and starring Michael Cera (Juno Superbad) and newcomer Portia Doubleday the volatile combo becomes downright hazardous.
The “teen” label is highly debatable here as Youth in Revolt’s hapless protagonist Nick (Cera) and his impish paramour Sheeni (Doubleday) are both too quick-witted and hyper-articulate to qualify as mere high school sophomores. It’s the Juno debate: I don’t know if any teens actually talk like this but if they do I guarantee none are as sophisticated or attractive as our Nick and Sheeni. No Youth in Revolt is more like a hipster’s whimsical projection of what his adolescence might have looked like if it weren’t spent buried in an issue of McSweeney’s. And on that level — as a sort of Porky’s for intellectuals — it actually works.
Though his vocabulary is highly advanced 16-year-old Nick shares one important trait in common with most boys his age: He’d like to lose his virginity preferably as soon as possible. But his chances seem woefully slim until he meets Sheeni an attractive girl possessing a mind as sharp as his but without the nagging insecurity and sexual inhibition. To top it off Sheeni appears more than willing to escort Nick into manhood; circumstances however conspire to thwart them at nearly every turn driving Nick to increasingly desperate lengths to be joined with her. Egged on by an imaginary wingman his shrewdly Machiavellian alter ego Francois Dillinger (also Cera) Nick’s actions escalate from mere lies and manipulation to arson and auto theft with startling speed and he soon earns the attention of the authorities.
With the cops hot on his trail Nick spends the last third of the film in a sort of hormone-fueled version of The Fugitive racing against time to crack the case of his virginity before being dragged away to juvenile hall. It’s one of the many odd shifts in tone that plague Youth in Revolt as Arteta can’t seem to decide between raunchy sex comedy and surreal coming-of-age tale. Thankfully he’s able to fall back on the talents of Cera and Doubleday whose amusing and endearing — if suspiciously mature — repartee carries the film.
The Hoover household is something of an insane asylum but nobody would ever knowingly hurt anyone except him- or herself. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a deluded optimist and motivational speaker who only motivates himself. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) unwittingly reinforces his behavior by placating him and hiding her frustration. Sheryl’s dad (Alan Arkin) an acid-tongued old-timer who’s hooked on heroin and brother (Steve Carell) a gay suicidal Proust scholar who is the epitome of the “crazy uncle” cliché are also aboard the crazy train. Richard and Sheryl’s son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a Nietzsche follower who only communicates with his family by writing. Then there’s the daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) the family’s glue. All she wants is to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant so the Hoovers all load their baggage onto the family’s VW bus--which barely runs--and embark on a long bumpy ride to California.
If only there were a Best Ensemble Oscar Sunshine’s cast would…get snubbed for being too quirky but still. And by constantly upstaging one another the actors may have further hurt their chances. It is this no ego effect however that is central to the movie’s theme and success. While all the performances are nothing short of superb the three showstoppers are Collette Carell and Breslin. Aussie Collette continues her brilliantly understated career with this turn as a well-meaning Everymom who ultimately only wants to nurture her family. Carell perhaps the only one with a fighting chance at an Oscar nod shows us why he’s really a megastar: he can act with a complete about-face from his usual roles as evidence. (Lest we forget this is a guy who up until recently was a fake-news correspondent!) And Breslin (Signs) is simply an amazing young talent who provides all the wide-eyed caffeine the film needs and then some but does so with precious maturity. It’s as if she inspired the title. There’s a quirky behind-the-scenes story too: Sunshine’s directors--plural--are married to one another! Husband-and-wife duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are widely known music-video directors but not the type who would make their big-screen transition with something like say Torque; thankfully they chose substance over style. If not for these very gifted directors Sunshine could’ve come unhinged where so many pedestrian “dysfunctional family” indies do: by turning the characters each with a laundry list of defining quirks into caricatures. But thanks in equal parts to the direction acting and flawless script (from first-timer Michael Arndt) there is so much truth to each character. Most notable though is the linear nature of the story; these directors clearly don’t need swooping twists to convey their themes and profundity and that is rare and remarkable. The climax with which it all culminates can only be described as unforgettable.