There aren’t very many adaptations of ambitious, lengthy books into film that manage to not to trip on their own feet. I am very happy to say Youth in Revolt does not mishandle the book, but in fact adds a layer of realism and earnest emotion that the book (deliberately) strays away from.
Youth in Revolt is a teenage fantasy coming-of-age story set in central and northern California, about one young man’s quest for love. Beyond this basic setting, we have no other cues to tell us when the action is happening; the protagonist Nick uses a computer that looks like it’s from 1992, the teenage characters all speak with Shakespearean wit, and everyone seems to regularly write letters and keep journals. (Like I said, it’s a fantasy.)
This otherworldly element was fortunately imported in from the original book. Another spectacular motif that was thankfully maintained is showing the extreme lengths teenage guys will go for love; some of the more twisted elements of the novel (like Nick drugging his girlfriend so she is expelled from school and forced to go back to her hometown, also where he forced his father to move) ring true to the source material. Which I think is really commendable and brave on the filmmakers’ part; not many studios would make a movie where the character we are supposed to sympathize with pulls that kind of stunt, even in the name of love.
What the film does even better is bringing this often-fantastical story back down to earth. Eventually Nick’s crimes (yes, they are crimes) do catch up with him and he is forced to reconcile with his past, while in the book he is able to skirt it yet again. In literature though, disbelief is much more easily suspended than in film, so it is refreshing to see this problem actually brought to light for a medium in which that plot development is simply implausible.
The film also humanizes the actions taken by the characters. Both the young lovers, Nick and Sheeni, pull some pretty bad shit throughout the course of the story. Exhausted with the situation, Sheeni eventually tells Nick that she can’t put up with Nick’s shenanigans any longer. “I’m tired of being alone.” He thoughtfully replies, “I’ve been alone all my life. That’s why I’m doing this.” A real motive is fueling their love, not just the boredom of disaffected youth (which appears to be the case in the novel).
One minor (unrealistic) critique I have of the film is how comparatively minor in scope the movie is when looking at the novel. The original is an epic 500-page trilogy of books (bound together in one volume) and deservedly so; Nick goes through a lot to finally win over Sheeni. I had been expecting similar treatment for the film (clocking in at at least 2 1/2 hours?) but alas, my contemporary American epic can apparently be told in 90 minutes. Still, I’m amazed they pulled off the stellar project they did.
This movie seems perfect for our contemporary era of culture and sophistication re-entering the base requirements for courtship. The characters (convincingly) discuss arthouse film and dress fashionably (but affordably). Despite its more fantastical elements, this film still seems incredibly weighted and a more realistic depiction of teenage life (well, mine anyways!) than the typical teen sex comedy fare you get in the multiplexes. By far the best high school film in recent memory, and one of the best movies of 2009.