"Charlie Bartlett" takes an oft-trodden formula seen in a lot of teen comediesthat of an underdog who rises above the system and becomes a superstar within his high schooland also features plenty of the typical hallmarks, including dances, a theater production, suffocating administrators, bullies prone to stuffing heads into toilets, and first loves. At quick glance these elements seem awfully familiar, but then a funny thing happens: the movie surpasses expectations, the story goes in unexpected and frequently tough directions, and first-time director Jon Poll and screenwriter Gustin Nash refuse to treat anyone like a caricature or one-note type. "Charlie Bartlett" has been rated R primarily for some salty language, and it is times like these when the MPAA's stringent rules and regulations don't hold water. Teen audiences would eat this film up, be able to closely identify with its ideas and themes, and appreciate that it treats its characters with the realism and lack of compromise they deserve but so sporadically receive in Hollywood.
17-year-old Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) has spent the bulk of his formidable years getting kicked out of one private school after the next. When his latest scheme of passing out fake IDs gets him expelled, his somewhat loose cannon of a mother, Marilyn (Hope Davis), decides that it is time for him to try his hand at public education. At a time in his life when nothing is as important as being popular or, at the very least, accepted by his peers, Charlie comes up with a surefire scheme to win everyone over.
Spurred by being so easily prescribed Ritalin for a suspected ADD he may or may not even have, Charlie cons a series of doctors with fake ailments and opens up his own makeshift pharmaceutical company in the school's bathroom. Additionally acting as his classmates go-to therapist, Charlie inspires the student body to rise above conformity, question authority, and stay true to their own beliefs. The harried alcoholic Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) catches on to what Charlie is doingand is none too pleased, either, when he begins dating his own daughter Susan (Kat Dennings)but is virtually defenseless in putting a stop to the radical shift in power.
After a rocky first act that sways a little too far in the direction of portraying things, particularly the business involving the prescription medications, as broadly black and white, "Charlie Bartlett" finds its footing and builds in thematic complexity. There are messages to be had about the way pharmaceuticals are commonly pushed upon kids with the ease of buying a pack of gum, about cutthroat high school politics, and about the inherent flaws in the education system, but they are more often than not delivered in an unpushy, intelligent, and thought-provoking manner that isn't preachy. More than that, the film takes the time to really listen to its characters, all of whom have minds and ideas and hang-ups more like real people than usual screenplay creations. Even those with only a few scenes apiece, such as cheerleader Whitney (Megan Park), who is not happy with her promiscuity but unsure of how to stop it, and lonely outsider Kip Crombwell (Mark Rendall), feel like they are made of flesh and blood rather than mere words on a page.
The title character of the piece is played by Anton Yelchin (2007's "Alpha Dog
"), a long-promising young actor who is so assured in this role it's almost scary. Yelchin understands Charlie Bartlett, savors his quirks and charms and the kindness he gives to those around him, but knowledgeably avoids turning him into a too-perfect god among 17-year-olds. Despite his attempts to guide and advise his peers, Charlie knows full well that he is just as screwed-up as the rest of them. He has an unorthodox home life with a mother who loves him but doesn't know how to be a parent. He has a father whose whereabouts and the details thereof are gradually revealed through the course of the story. And, perhaps most paralyzingly, his fear of rejection has led him down what in essence is a criminal path that could spell trouble for his future. Charlie's slow realization that pills aren't the answer but the enabler is crucial to his character arc and handled in just the right low key.
Supporting the front-and-center Anton Yelchin are an array of deft performances. The incomparable Hope Davis (2005's "The Weather Man
") is equal parts hilarious and poignant as mother Marilyn, something of a lost soul who long ago forgot that Charlie is still a child. Her scenes with Yelchin consistently ring true. Robert Downey Jr. (2007's "Lucky You
") is given the chance to round and shade his part of Principal Gardner so that he isn't seen as an empty bad guy, but someone who makes mistakes and recognizes he isn't well-equipped for the job he's been given. As Susan, Kat Dennings (2005's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin
") is a sparkling match for Yelchin, able to effectively move between vulnerable and confident, sometimes within the same scene. And Tyler Hilton (2005's "Walk the Line
") is a terrific find as Murphey Bivens, lending charm to a character who starts off as an antagonistic bully before surprisingly developing into a guy with a heart made nothing of stone.
"Charlie Bartlett" doesn't condescend to the masses or mug for humor. The comedy comes naturally from human behavior instead of trite gags and bathroom humor. The drama is well-positioned and, too, comes from an honest place and a sense that director Jon Poll loves his characters. A sequence near the end involving a gun sticks out as being unnecessary and a tad over-the-top, but the film recovers immediately afterwards and finishes strong. The conclusion, bittersweet and hopeful, earns its emotions without mawkish manipulation. Subjectively reminiscent of 1990's gloriously anti-establishment "Pump Up the Volume," "Charlie Bartlett" is a non-flashy but uncommonly savvy film about teenage life that one can only hope finds its rightful audience.