Director: Jon Poll (The Tree)
Writer: Gustin Nash
Producers: William Horberg, Barron Kidd, Sidney Kimmel, David Permut, Jay Roach
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis, Tyler Hilton, Jake Epstein, Lauren Collins, Dylan Taylor, Mark Rendall, Kat Dennings, Derek McGrath
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 97 min
When the first trailers for Charlie Bartlett spread across the web, some folks quickly jumped on the Ferris Bueller comparison bandwagon. It’s an easy thing to do: both films center on teenage boys meandering through highschool but whereas Bueller is never depicted as less than popular to begin with, Charlie Bartlett fits the geeky kid cookie cutter character to a tee.
Charlie is a lost teenager (is there any other kind?). Smart, witty, funny and desperate for friends, he does what he can to garner attention from his peers and the resulting enterprises lead to his expulsion from every conceivable private school. With no other alternatives, Charlie ends up in public school and until he devises his next scheme, at the low rung on the totem poll which makes him the perfect target for the school bully. In a smart twist, he ends up including said bully in his scheme and soon he’s running a psychiatric office from the boys bathroom, complete with pharmacy and real drugs. Things happen, stuff goes wrong and Charlie has to change his ways while trying to keep his reputation, his newfound appreciation for the principal who has cut him a break, and his new girlfriend.
On the surface, Charlie Bartlett fits all of the pre-conceptions of the teen comedy but somewhere between the smarter than average script and the more likable than average actors, the film manages to work better than anyone could have expected. Anton Yelchin is the perfect mix of smart-ass every dude turned school’s most popular go-to guy and one can’t help but like him. It has something to do with his ability to sell the character as someone who we like and want to see succeed, even if he is selling illegal drugs to fellow students. Then there’s Tyler Hilton as Murph, the bully turned business partner who adds colour and a certain amount of danger to the story. Throw in the passable love interest in the form of the sexy Kat Dennings, and the always amazing Hope Davis as Charlie’s drugged up and unable to look after herself mother and you have a pretty good start. Thrown into the mix are an assortment of teens who all fit the standard highschool stereotypes but when put up amidst the likes of Charlie and Murph, they seem more realistic than stereotypical. The coup d’état of this entire enterprise has to be the inclusion of Robert Downey Jr. as Principal Gardner. A role that could easily have slid down the slope of clichéd adult in a kids world is instead brought to life by Downey Jr. and rather unsurprisingly, his is one of the standout performances in a film full of surprisingly good and memorable roles.
At its essence, Charlie Bartlett claims to be the story of a boy who has been thrust into an adult world, made to deal with adult problems and in the process grown up much too fast. Although there is a warning in there somewhere, what really counts is that the message is rolled up along with a bunch of others all of which speak to personal responsibility, importance of character, and how being popular is not the most important thing in the world (but I dare you to convince a teenager of that last one).
Smart script, solid direction but above all charismatic characters make this little film better than your average teen comedy and though it’s unlikely to dethrone Bueller as one of the quintessential teen comedies, Charlie Bartlett is certainly deserving of a spot alongside it.