Title: Charlie Bartlett
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Director: Jon Poll
Screenwriters: Gustin Nash
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis
It’s hard to overstate how extraordinary and valuable Charlie Bartlett is. Most movies aimed at young teenagers — as this one is, despite its R rating — push an anti-popularity, “be yourself” agenda: make your own kind of music, they say, and what does it matter what everyone else thinks. Ignore peer pressure and do what you feel. Good advice, perhaps, but not terribly impactful, peer pressure being what it is; it’s also trite to the point of becoming invisible, washing over audiences without them even noticing. Charlie Bartlett has in mind something other than imploring kids to be themselves even at the cost of being popular. It wants instead to say something about what the popular kids should do with their popularity.
In his dreams, Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is a rock star. In the dream sequence that opens the film, he takes the stage in front of a cheering, adoring public that chants his name and can’t get enough of his mere presence. In the slightly sobering reality that follows, he is expelled from a posh private school for running a fake ID factory out of his locker — the timing couldn’t be worse, he tells his mom (Hope Davis) as they ride away in their chauffeured Rolls-Royce, because “they were just starting to appreciate” him. When she tries to insist that popularity isn’t everything, he reasonably reminds her that he’s in high school, and asks what else he should be after.
One difference between Charlie and the clique-obsessed popularity-seekers ridiculed by the majority of teen movies is that Charlie takes as his starting point not a win-at-any-cost viciousness but a genuine desire to be helpful. Hence the film’s gimmick: upon arriving at public school (having been booted from every private school in the state) and finding many of his classmates troubled and confused, Charlie recruits the school bully (Tyler Hilton) as a business partner and sets up a makeshift psychiatrist office in the boys’ bathroom. In addition to dispensing advice to the students who soon line up to tell him their problems, he also “prescribes” medication that he obtains by seeing his family’s on-call psychiatrist and describing the appropriate set of symptoms. Predictably, the strange, well-dressed, unfailingly polite boy soon attains legendary status among his peers, at which point he unassumingly sets his sights on the principal’s daughter (Kat Dennings), much to the chagrin of the principal (Robert Downey, Jr.).
It’s easy to read Charlie Bartlett as commentary on parents’ tendency to medicate their kids, as a sort of lighter version of The Chumscrubber. But that seems myopic. The film is called Charlie Bartlett, after all, and the title character’s pill-mill is merely one part of his coming-of-age. Sure, he gives a few kids Prozac, but much more important is what he discovers while doing so: his ability to energize and lead the student population. More important still is his realization that having captured their affections and allegiance, the right thing to do isn’t to use his classmates but to empower them.
Subtle and ingenious, Charlie Bartlett is a teen movie whose message is aimed, for once, not at the misfits but at the leaders — the kids who are smart, charismatic, capable, and popular; the ones who could be role models. It understands the impulse that leads people to seek social acceptance, and doesn’t condemn Charlie’s desire to be liked. Instead, it gently leads him to a point where he is able to use his talents — and his popularity — for good rather than ill.
The film is intentionally unrealistic, supplementing its fanciful vision of high school and Charlie’s privileged life with some downright surreal (and irresistibly energetic) comedic interludes. Anton Yelchin, so affecting in the uneven Alpha Dog, effortlessly rides the tonal roller coaster, proving equally adept at broad physical comedy, wry verbal humor, and wide-eyed earnestness. In what proves to be the key to the film, he turns a somewhat cynical social climber (watch for the scene where Charlie practices his next move in front of the mirror) into someone sympathetic and endearing.
Charlie Bartlett is rated R but is perfect, even salutary for young teens and older tweens. It’s sincere, unabashedly positive, smart and funny — a supernaturally rare combination.