For me, a Gen-Xer, Charlie Bartlett is as a cross between Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club. Perhaps it’s not cool enough [Juno] or even geeky enough [Rocket Science] for teenagers to feel that they can relate in any way. If given a chance, everyone can.
Charlie Bartlett is a clever film about a preppie kid with a drunk mum [Hope Davis], a mini-mansion in Connecticut [the nice part, perhaps Westport] and a chauffeur. How can we relate at all? Because even with all the toys and financial advantages, Charlie Bartlett [Anton Yelchin] is just a boy who wants a bit of popularity at high school. Just like every jock, geek, princess, rebel and misfit a la The Breakfast Club.
At the start, Charlie is kicked out of yet another school—he tends to challenge authority and the norm– and even mommy’s offer to pay for a new wing will not get him back in. Out of options, mom sends Charlie off to public school. He arrives in a prep school blazer, tie and khakis with attaché in hand. No one makes him welcome except for one ODP kid, Len [Charlie, not knowing the ways of public school, got on the “short bus” in the morning]. He’s eager to make friends with anyone and everyone and soon people notice.
In one of the first scenes, the school bully Murphey [Tyler Hilton] encounters him in the bathroom and asks “Is that a briefcase?” to which Charlie responds, “No, it’s actually an attaché.” Murphey proceeds to beat him up, complete with a head dunk in the toilet. Charlie also gets teased by the popular kids and stared out by the theater types. A cool, dark-haired arty girl—one of the theater bunch—immediately takes notice of him (okay, maybe it’s a bit cliché that we soon discover her dad (a funny, neurotic Robert Downey Jr.) is principal and we can just tell they are going to get together.
That much may be predictable but Charlie’s journey to being accepted as he is by his peers, his mother and the authority figures is not. It’s all fun to watch. Many jokes are just laugh out loud funny. After a school dance, where Charlie and Murph team up to sell off Charlie’s Ritalin, Charlie realizes they just might be onto something. Soon via visits to his family’s “on-call” psychiatrist, Charlie and Murph set up shop—in the boy’s bathroom– to make a few bucks [which Murphey likes] and gain the kids trust and admiration [which Charlie adores]. Charlie dispenses advice and pills–Ritalin, antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. But he soon finds that most of these kids are not that different from each other. In this technology-infused generation, good old fashioned sit down advice is the meds these kids need.
I had not seen Anton Yelchin in any films before and he more than carries the leading role. He makes us believe in Charlie and his hopefulness. That cheery banter and stick-to-it-ness provides the audience with many feel good moments. As Charlie’s mom, Hope Davis seems to relish this role as the mother who is so blasé about her son’s checkered past in high school. She drinks, she sings inappropriately and joyously, she aimlessly wanders the mansion while hopped up on a cornucopia of meds. As the well-intentioned but over-his-head principal, Downey Jr. does the inner turmoil/avoidance so well. Kat Dennings is charming and sweet as his daughter and Charlie’s girlfriend Susan.
With such a talented, cohesive cast, this teen film may have ended up another throw away. Instead, Charlie Bartlett provides a fresh take on the high school dramedy. You’ll laugh and route for Charlie to get everything he wants. And more. It’s really a great film.
STEELE RECOMMENDATION: SEE IT