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Youth in Revolt

Teenage Riot

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars.

Michael Cera has established himself as the sensitive, self-effacing symbol of geek chic, whose trademark monotone seems at once unassuming and laden with irony. In Miguel Arteta’s Youth in Revolt, he cuts loose.

Nobody will confuse Francois, his chain-smoking, mustachioed wild man, with the sort of characters played by Jack Black, a master at embodying the untamed id, but it’s a refreshing change of pace.

Cera plays two roles here: Nick, a shy, retiring teen, and Francois, his rascal of an alter ego. Nick is polite, virginal and far too timid to land the girl of his dreams. That would be the lovely Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), who has a boyfriend but seems open to collecting another.

Nick goes the extra mile to win Sheeni’s attention. He steals a car, crashes it, and burns down half of Berkeley. But you can’t argue with results — he gets the girl, along with a warrant for his arrest. The challenge with his newly tarnished reputation is keeping her, over the strenuous objections of her parents.

Youth in Revolt, Arteta’s long-gestating adaptation of C. D. Payne’s popular novel, was a celebrated selection at last September’s Toronto Film Festival that was bumped from a scheduled October release until now. Happily, the good-natured absurdity it depicts has no expiration date.

Nick’s bad-boy antics are half-hearted at best — he’s a sweet kid who desperately wants to project an aura of danger — but his commitment to Sheeni is unwavering. He’s the genuine article, a 16-year-old in love (Cera, now 21, doesn’t quite look the part but plays it well) and working up the nerve to pop the question, pending the outcome of his inevitable prosecution.

Gustin Nash’s screenplay focuses more on Payne’s thoughtful characterizations and less on Nick’s sex-obsessed inner monologues, and Youth in Revolt is better for it. The adolescents Nash imagines are too precocious for their own good, as reflected in dialogue that seems, at times, sophisticated beyond their years, but that’s part of the joke. Cera and impressive newcomer Doubleday sell it well.

They are joined by Justin Long, ideally cast as Sheeni’s laughably dope-addled brother; Jean Smart (TV’s “Designing Women”) as Nick’s codependent mom, for whom life is a boozy succession of loser boyfriends; and Ray Liotta, as a reasonable facsimile of the sadistic cop he played in last year’s Observe and Report. Arteta (The Good Girl) parlays their strong performances into a smart, likable comedy that breaks no new ground but earns its laughs.