Ask Michael Cera, the star of “Youth in Revolt,” if he has lost his virginity, and he answers “Yes” before adding that good, if dusty, chestnut: “Now, I’m trying to get it back.”
Recycled jokes about lost virginity are a lot like movies that mine the humor of the same subject: Depending on the execution, they veer wildly between trite and funny. In the case of Cera’s quip -- spoken with his halting, thoughtful, almost squeaky voice -- it falls solidly on the humorous side.
With “Youth in Revolt,” in theaters Friday, director Miguel Arteta (“The Good Girl”) aspires to similar success with a movie that follows a common plot line: a sexually ambitious teen seeks to lose his virginity, falls in love with a beautiful girl, and then must endure a variety of escapades to achieve his original goal.
The 1980s were particularly rife with similarly themed fare, some memorable (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”), others less so (“The Last American Virgin,” “Porky’s”). And yet, as familiar a setup as it is, the filmmakers behind “Youth in Revolt,” adapted from the cult favorite novel of the same name by C.D. Payne, believe that their movie breathes new life -- laced with the smoke from a Gitanes cigarette -- into the genre.
“This is no mere horny teen scheming to get laid,” Arteta says. “This is a kid of prodigious mental and linguistic faculties at odds with his own hormones.”
Arteta speaks of Nick Twisp (Cera), an alienated teen who first appears on screen masturbating in his bed while his character narrates that he loves “prose” and Frank Sinatra. “I’m still a virgin, needless to say,” he adds.
Twisp’s parents (played by Steve Buscemi and Jean Smart), whom he has already eclipsed in maturity and intelligence, are divorced and caught up in dubious liaisons -- Dad with a bikini-clad blond closer to his son’s age and Mom with first a sad-sack truck driver and then a half-cocked cop. The young Twisp spends time with a friend who camps out in the backyard and pines for a girl at school while studying positions in the Kama Sutra. Prospects seem bleak.
That is, until Twisp meets the beautiful Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a girl with similar intellectual inclinations and a love for everything French. “Twisp is a kid who is a throwback and an intellectual. He is an alien on another plant,” producer David Permut says. “And she’s like the only one speaking his language.”
The movie takes a decidedly different turn when, to break out of his inert shyness, Twisp imagines (or realizes?) an alter ego for himself, a smooth-talking and smooth-smoking French bad-boy nihilist, named Francois Dillinger (also played by Cera, with mustache and side-parted hair). This other identity brings Twisp out of his shell at the same time that it gets him into various kinds of trouble with his parents, the law, school officials and, ultimately, with Saunders.
The erudite references and absurdist, dark comedic elements (involving arson, psychedelics and religious zealotry) are clear cues that this is no “American Pie,” that coming-of-age 1999 yuck-fest that featured the creative use of an apple pie.
“This is far removed from a film like that,” Permut says. “A movie like ‘The Graduate’ is a better reference point.”
Although Arteta claims an affinity for such sexual awakening films as 1980’s “Little Darlings” and 1982’s “Fast Times” -- “Spicoli is in some ways a surfer-dude version of Francois,” he says -- the director harks even further back, and across the Atlantic, for his inspiration for “Youth in Revolt.” “The character of Francois was definitely inspired by Jean-Paul Belmondo in movies such as ‘Pierrot le Fou,’ ” he says. “To me, that is the gold standard for themes of youth, sex and rebellion.”
Those forces that drive that 1965 Jean-Luc Godard film extend through the spectrum of sexually charged movies about coming of age, all the way up to Judd Apatow’s most recent virgin chronicles, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and, of course, 2007’s “Superbad,” which also starred Cera. While the movies share prima facie similarities, Cera says his previous film was less about character development and “more about hitting the laughs.”
Cera and Doubleday, both 21, echo their young, sophisticated characters in sounding uninspired by most of the recent movies that offer these timeless themes for laughs. Doubleday cites the rather sobering “White Oleander” as a coming-of-age movie that left an impression on her, but she clearly understands her movie’s thematic heritage.
“There is a primal fascination with sex at that age that remains constant through generations,” Arteta says. “And I think all of these types of movies, regardless of relative shock value, play on the same core concept of how one deals with that new and irrepressible urge.”