Charlie's first week at the public high school finds him getting his head dunked in the toilet, receiving a beating from the school bully, and pretty much ignored by everyone else. But Charlie (played with ferocious energy by Anton Yelchin) has a resilient spirit. He's determined to make friends and find a way to be popular at school. But the route to popularity that he chooses is an unconventional one. Since his mom has a family psychiatrist on call, Charlie discovers that he can get just about any prescription drug he wants, so long as he feigns the right emotional trauma or anxiety. This leads him to form a financial partnership with the local bully (Tyler Hilton) to sell the drugs at school. But because Charlie's a nice guy and not really a drug dealer, he also sets up "therapy sessions" in the boys' bathroom to counsel students and "prescribe" the proper drugs. (In case you can't tell, this isn't a laid back pot comedy. This is a Ritalin-infused, tightly wound anxious comedy.) Charlie treats cheerleaders with self-esteem issues, girls worrying about breast implants, and geeky loners suffering from panic attacks. Suddenly Charlie finds himself popular beyond his wildest dreams. Of course that irks Principal Gardner (Robert Downey, Jr.) to no end. After all, Gardner can't even get kids at an assembly to quiet down whereas Charlie gives one hushed suggestion and he manages to disperse a student protest. But none of this bothers the principal quite as much as the fact that Charlie is dating his daughter Susan (a demurely sexy Kat Denning).
Charlie Bartlett holding therapy sessions in the bathroom. (MGM)
Charlie Bartlett positions itself as a kinder, gentler Ferris Bueller's Day Off or a less hip and less artful Rushmore . It's never mean-spirited like Ferris Bueller but it never finds fresh new terrain the way Rushmore did. Like its main character, Charlie Bartlett tries so hard to win us over that it practically bursts a celluloid vein in the process. The film and its lead actor Anton Yelchin are like the kid in the talent show who tries to cram everything into his act - singing, dancing, accents, crying, laughter. They are both in your face and grow a little tiresome. Yet you can't deny that they both have impressive energy.
The film is the creation of first time screenwriter Gustin Nash and veteran editor-turned-director Jon Poll. They jump into their project with obvious gusto but lack the experience to fine tune their product. Nash contributes some sharp dialogue and seems to have a better grasp of the adult characters than the kids. Charlie's mom is an especially clever creation. She tries to treat her son as an adult and when he gets into trouble, she tries to put a positive spin on it. So when he gets expelled for making fake I.D.s she points out "you have to admit they look very authentic." She's also someone who may only be as mature as her own child. At one point she sulks, "I'm feeling a little underappreciated here." But as played by Hope Davis, she has a sweet loopiness as she tries the best she knows how to be a parent. When she tries to get tough on Charlie and grounds him, she suddenly realizes she has no idea what that means and asks her son what the standard is for such punishment.
Anton Yelchin and Robert Downey, Jr. in Charlie Bartlett (MGM)
Principal Gardner is another damaged adult that Nash draws with efficient strokes. Gardner was once happy teaching history but circumstances have forced him into an administrative job that he hates. Already bruised by a wife who has left him, Gardner tries to maintain an even keel by drinking. He's at once frustrated with Charlie and somehow sympathetic. It's a tricky balance that Robert Downey, Jr. carefully maintains. Downey's Gardner is sad but sympathetic, and in some ways he's just as lost and dissatisfied as some of the kids at his school. Both Gardner and Charlie's mom suggest that there are more important things than being popular. Like what, is Charlie's response. While his mom can't answer that question, Gardner says what one does with that popularity is what's more important. That seems to be a turning point for Charlie.
As Charlie, Yelchin comes across as an overachiever. His desire to be liked and accepted is overpowering and occasionally off-putting. But Yelchin finds a certain sincerity in all of Charlie's antics. But the character is written with some inherent contradictions and inconsistencies that are difficult for Yelchin to reconcile. He instructs that a teenager's duty is to occasionally piss off his parents, but Charlie doesn't seem to take his own advice. The school expulsions don't seem like an attempt to annoy his mom or even to get her attention. He doesn't seem like Harold in Harold and Maude who cannot even get his mom to notice when he commits suicide. The film would like to paint Charlie as a rebel but he's not really. This rich kid seems to represent maintaining the status quo. The film wants him to be more complex than written and that puts a strain on Yelchin.
Charlie Bartlett (rated R for language, drug content and brief nudity) tries to be a rebellious teen comedy but it also wants to deliver a final comforting message that everything will okay. The bully is really a nice guy, the cheerleader will date the boy from the other side of the tracks, and art can save everyone. Some people called Juno a fairy tale about teen life but at least Juno created a universe where everyone functioned believably within the context of the film, and the film maintained a consistent tome. In Charlie Bartlett, the filmmakers are all over the place as are the characters. They want a breezy comedy as well as a certain level of realism, but that balance becomes difficult to maintain when they show kids getting beat up and a teen attempting suicide. Poll and Nash don't have the skill to pull off the mix of tones and shifting emotions in a smooth manner. And it doesn't help that they use a Cat Stevens' song made famous in Harold and Maude as the film's signature music. It's a ballsy move to quote a film that dealt so much more effectively and slyly with the difficulty of being a teenager.
Companion viewing: Harold and Maude, Rushmore, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Igby Goes Down
Read what one of our Teen Critics thought of Charlie Bartlett .