A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, R, 97 mins.

Anton Yelchin: Charlie Bartlett / Robert Downey Jr.: Principal Gardner / Hope Davis: Marilyn Bartlett / Kat Dennings: Susan Gardner

Directed by Jon Poll / Written by Gustin Nash

CHARLIE BARTLETT is like the progeny of countless other teen high school films that we have seen in wide abundance before.  You know, the ones with hopelessly unpopular misfits that manage to garner some unexpected popularity from the masses in surprising ways; the once unattainable pretty girl that has deeply buried emotional issues that is won over by the misunderstood title hero; the caring and loving mother figures that are well meaning, but are universally clueless about their child’s issues and problems; the meek and unpopular nerd that is suicidal and whose attempts at killing himself is pinned on the hero; and finally the high school principal, who takes it upon himself to make life miserable for the teen misfit hero.   

CHARLIE BARTLETT has all of these staple ingredients, but what it does have going for it is an intelligence and wit and a willingness to invest in its character with more interest than so many other disposable and wretched high school films.  Yes, the film is routine and often runs on auto-pilot, and there are several moments where it's so mechanical that you can see precisely where it’s heading at any given moment, but I found myself being ultimately won over by the film’s freshness and honesty with its characters.  Perhaps its best asset is its determination to present both the title character – a 17-year-old teen than goes from an social outcast to a celebrity – and its authority figures – more specifically, the school principal – as flawed and multi-faceted personas. 

CHARLIE BARTLETT does not engage in annoying hero worship of its adolescent protagonist, nor does it denigrate the adult authority figures into one-note, cardboard cutout drones that service the script’s need for easy villains.  More often than not, the film dies not try to be exasperatingly naïve and narrow-minded with its characters: both the kids and adults grow to understand and respect one another, which is kind of rare – and refreshing – for these type of genre films.  Certainly, the film owes a huge debt to works like FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, RISKY BUSINESS, PUMP UP THE VOLUME, and a bit of the AMERICAN PIE films, but on a whole it holds itself up well as a teen angst film that is more ambitious and smart than a lot of other recent offerings. 

Thankfully, the title character is also not squeaky clean and without faults, which makes him more interesting.  Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin, a fine, natural actor) lives a WASP lifestyle to the hilt.  He resides in a large mansion that would put Bruce Wayne to shame and is largely more of a parental figure to his mother than she is back to him.  The mom, Marilyn (Hope Davis, plucky and funny), is a ditzy, pill-popping and alcoholic woman that loves her son to death, even if he gets into serious trouble at every prep school he’s attending.  During the funny opening scene, where she meets with the Dean of Charlie’s prep school, she is informed that her young son is being expelled for running a fake driver’s license lab.  Of course, Marilyn shrugs it off with a sly sense of pride instead of anger, stating “You gotta admit, these sure look real” after seeing Charlie’s work. 

Needless to say, not even a huge bribe can keep Charlie in this prep school, so he's now forced – gasp! – to attend public school.   Predictably, his Dockers and Ivy League, tweed sport-coat wearing façade makes him a quick outcast, and a target for the obligatory school bully, Murphey Bivens (Tyler Hilton, oozing angry malevolence), who not only pummels the poor kid, but video tapes it so he can watch it later, over and over again.

Soon, Charlie’s mother grows so concerned about her son’s well being that she sends him to a shrink, which culminates with him getting a big prescription for Ritalin.  He gleefully takes it for a few days and discovers what a good, easy, and natural high one can get off of the drug.  Lightning then strikes for the young go-getter and he hatches an ingenious plan to take him towards a path to acceptance and popularity:  He confronts Murphey, who previously pounded on him, to help him sell Ritalin in the school to the kids, seeing as Murphey seems like a guy who could handle this job.  Charlie’s plan then grows more clever and conveying: He purposely goes back to several shrinks, faking symptoms, in order to get a diverse collection of mood altering drugs to sell to the school kids.  Within no time, Charlie is patrolling the school hallways like a cocky hustler and gains serious high school street cred, which further materializes with him becoming the school’s secret psychologist; he holds sessions in the boy’s washroom – he sits in one stall and his patient’s take the adjacent ones. 

Interestingly, the advice that Charlie dishes out reveals some keen insight into understanding the problems of those who seek his help: He listens, does not judge, and offers frank, to-the-point guidance.  He is also democratic, willing to talk to anyone and everyone, regardless of stature.  He soon crosses paths with a cute girl named Susan (Kat Dennings, in a very delicate and subtle performance) who is slightly damaged goods.  Her father (Robert Downey Jr.) has been divorced and is an uncompromising loner.  He also is a drunk, often spending most of his nights in his study with a bottle.  He is also the school principle, which makes his daughter’s growing love for Charlie a even greater sore spot for him, not to mention the fact that he is getting heat from the school’s superintendent to find a way to expel Charlie at risk of seeing his own job be taken. 

The revelations and plot developments of CHARLIE BARTLETT are nothing groundbreaking.  We know with great certainty that Charlie will fall for the girl, much to the chagrin of her principal father.  We know that Charlie will change the lives of those that once hated him, especially the school bully.  We also know that Charlie will try to assist the stereotypical depressed kid, only to see him attempt to kill himself, with the principal pointing blame on Charlie.  And we finally will know that Charlie and the principal will have a climatic showdown…and so on and so on. 

Yet, the film overcomes it rudimentary formulas with its handling of its characters and somewhat sobering themes.  CHARLIE BARTLETT does a modestly decent job of exploring issues of teen popularity, acceptance, not to mention the potentially dangerous side effects of drug use.  The film also has some instances of fresh truthfulness with its dialogue (one moment where Charlie asks the bully if he likes beating on people is priceless in its simplicity: he thinks and then quietly responds, “No, not really).  The central relationship between Charlie and Susan is poignant and endearing without feeling manufactured.  

More importantly, I like the way the script allows for Charlie to develop a sense of self-actualization: He starts off as a cocky and arrogant kid that thinks he knows all of the answers and is the key to his fellow classmates’ happiness, but he grows to understand that, deep down, he is just a kid that really knows nothing.  Charlie himself is never idealized and held up for our instant empathy: he’s a teen that is both likeable and disagreeable.  You commend him for is willingness and compassion to help others, but find him disagreeable for the way he initially uses drugs as a gateway to friendship.  Because of this, Charlie is ultimately a blemished and imperfect persona, which makes the film he populates more involving. 

The performances are universally solid.  The 19-year-old, Leningrad-born Anton Yelchin is an interesting actor.  His mousy and meager enunciation is initially grating, but he always manages to infuse his characters with a disarming vulnerability, charm and affable wit (he will next be seen playing the young Chekov in J.J. Abrams' prequel reboot of STAR TREK, which will be interesting) and his scenes playing off of Robert Downey Jr. are the film’s best.  Downey has the most thankless job in the film for the way he has to play up to the conventions of the high school principal as a unsympathetic antagonist, but the more you watch the film the more it reveals subtle layers to this character’s personality and emotional state.  He is gutless and a wimp around his superintendent boss, a clumsy and overtly suspicious father to Susan, and a rather vocal rival to Charlie, but this character is given moments of understandable insight, as is the case when he tells Charlie of the danger of dishing out drugs that could have nasty, unwanted side effects.  He, like Charlie, is a fascinating character: He too yearns for acceptance and understanding from those that hate him and I like how he and Charlie find ways to cope with one another in order to grow as people.  One moment that involves a drunken Downey confronting Charlie near the film’s conclusion is an unqualified scene-stealer.  A lesser actor would have made this scene preposterous and let the principal come across as a clownish lout, but Downey sells it and makes it believable. 

CHARLIE BARTLETT is a high school teen comedy that is marred by its appropriation of the usual lamentable genre formulas, but the film as a whole succeeds with its under-the-radar and credible performances, its sincerity and earnestness with the material and themes, and its diplomacy it shows with its adolescent and adult characters.  It does a good job of showing the neurotic anxiousness of what it means to be a teenager griping with daily dilemmas as well as showing the conflicted authority figures that try to smack some common sense into these distressed youth.  Yes, CHARLIE BARTLETT feels routine, but it's never dull because of its smart and sly handling of its characters, which allows for it to get more of a passing grade over other banal and moronic teen flicks, the latter which often abuses the use of gross-out gags and juvenile humor.  Thankfully, this film never feels compelled to substitute its honest moments with asinine jokes and pratfalls.

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