Youth in Revolt opens Friday throughout the Triangle

It’s a familiar plot for anyone who has watched movies since the 1980s: sexually frustrated teen seeks to lose his virginity, falls head-over-heels for a beautiful girl and then undergoes a series of wacky exploits on his way to accomplishing his goal.

That director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl; Chuck & Buck) embraces such a shopworn subgenre in adapting C.D. Payne’s farcical coming-of-age novel Youth in Revolt is itself an ironic commentary on the landscape of cinematic comedies. Still, this is no Porky’s or American Pie. Youth in Revolt owes more to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Little Darlings and even Jean-Luc Godard, and while it may not equal that esteemed company, it is heady, hilarious fare that is already the surprise film of the young year.

Michael Cera has seemingly played the character of precocious, neurotic teenager Nick Twisp since his Arrested Development days. The 16-year-old Nick is a Holden Caulfield with a penchant for Sinatra and autoeroticism who longs to shed his virginity and sever ties with his divorced parents (Jean Smart and Steve Buscemi). Meanwhile, Mom cycles through loser boyfriends while Dad is shacked up with a bikini-clad blonde closer to Nick’s age.

When Mom’s latest lout (Zach Galifianakis) lands in hot water, they and Nick take refuge at Restless Axles, a Christian trailer park in northern California. Enter Sheeni Saunders (newcomer Portia Doubleday), an erudite Lolita with an abiding love for all things French, including her poster of Jean-Paul Belmondo. She and Nick wax whip-smart and commence a PG-rated summer fling, but his coitus interruptus proves to be Trent (Jonathan Bradford Wright), Sheeni’s handsome, French-speaking, piano-playing, Futurist percussive poetry-spouting boyfriend.

When Nick returns home and Sheeni leaves to attend a French boarding school in Santa Cruz, his solution on how they might reunite revolves around mischief created by Francois Dillinger (also played by Cera), a pencil-mustachioed, Gitanes-smoking figment of Nick’s imagination. The brazen Francoispart Jeff Spicoli, part Belmondo in Godard’s Pierrot le fouembodies Nick’s id and represents the sort of man he believes girls prefer. Spurred on by his inner Tyler Durden, Nick conflagrates his hometown of Berkley and sabotages Sheeni’s schooling.

Payne’s sharp wit translates well to the screen in the hands of writer Gustin Nash, whose coming-of-age Charlie Bartlett plowed similar, although less fertile ground. There are occasions late in Youth in Revolt when its comic elements almost explode into brilliant, full-blown surrealism, especially a couple of shroom-tripping sequences, including one that culminates with Sheeni’s dad (M. Emmet Walsh) smearing mashed potatoes all over his face.

Ultimately this is Cera’s show, and he exhibits range while carrying the film on his lanky back. Youth in Revolt congeals romance, sex and infatuation into one dysfunctional, indispensable confection. Circumstances force Nick to disguise himself in drag before he can finally enter Sheeni’s boudoir. In the end, love begets masculinity, not the other way around.