Charlie Bartlett (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's a given that most comedies centered around kids and high schools will involve, to one degree or another, the subject of popularity. For the average teenager, few things are more important than being liked. The ultimate high is being recognized and respected by the entire student body. Of course, looking back from the perspective of years (or decades), it all seems so superficial, but that's not how it feels "in the moment." Despite a maddeningly inconsistent tone, Charlie Bartlett takes viewers back into the classrooms and hallways of high school as it follows the improbable climb of one student from outcast to icon, and observes the consequences of his popularity.

Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is smart, glib, and unflappable. He's a 30-year old trapped in the body of a 17-year old. He may be a virgin, but his mind is active and he's never at a loss for words. He also has a habit of being expelled from private schools. His mother, Marilyn (Hope Davis), is an enabler - her solution is to turn a blind eye to Charlie's faults. His father is an absentee dad, spending his days and nights in prison where he serves a term for tax evasion. Eventually, Charlie ends up in public school. When he arrives there dressed in a suit and tie, the ridicule starts. It ends with him being brutally beaten up by the school bully, Murphey Bivens (Tyler Hilton).

Undaunted, Charlie visits a psychiatrist to bemoan his lack of popularity. The therapist's suggestion: he take Ritalin. After trying out the drug for a few days, Charlie has an idea: sell it to students. Suddenly, "Dr. Charlie" is known and loved by all. He holds court in the boys' lavatory. He sits in one stall while his patient sits in the next, pouring out his or her life's story. It ends with a "prescription" for drugs, dispensed by Charlie's new partner, Murphey. The school's principal (Robert Downey Jr.) knows something's up, but he can't find any proof. To make matters worse for him, his daughter, Susan (Kat Dennings), is head-over-heels for the drug dealer with a heart of gold.

It's impossible to label Charlie Bartlett as any one thing because it veers (sometimes erratically) from one genre to the next. At one point, it's a satire. At another, it's a teen comedy. Then it's a drama. Then a message piece. At times, it recalls the teen movies of the 1980s. Some may see shades of Rushmore in it. To me, the film it most strong resembles is the 1990 Christian Slater film, Pump Up the Volume. Charlie Bartlett isn't as angry but a lot of the same thematic ground is covered and many of the same plot points are stitched together to form the storyline.

I appreciate most of the performances. Anton Yelchin is fresh and likable as Charlie. Kat Dennings makes us care about the underdeveloped character of the girlfriend who happens to be the principal's daughter. Hope Davis turns on the comedic charm as the ditzy Marilyn. But the real scene stealer, not surprisingly, is Robert Downey Jr., whose completely serious acting is riveting to watch. Once again, Downey is playing an alcoholic, but this time it's not the sole defining trait of his character. The film's centerpiece scene features Downey, Yelchin, and a gun. Yelchin and the gun do their best to hold their own, but the sequence belongs to Downey.

Editor-turned-director Jon Poll makes his feature debut with Charlie Bartlett and it's mostly successful. The movie isn't afraid to tackle tough subjects, including the price of high school popularity and the cavalier nature with which drugs like Ritalin are prescribed. There's plenty of serious stuff buried underneath a seemingly unambitious story. But Charlie is a fascinating individual and his relationships with Susan and her father don't feel contrived. There are times when Poll has trouble navigating the difficulties of quick switches from comedy to drama (resulting in some awkward scenes and/or transitions) but, for the most part, he handles the tricky material adroitly. I would classify Charlie Bartlett as a smart teen film. It's more ambitious and overall more successful than its '80s forebears even though the resemblance is unmistakable. Sadly, the MPAA has acted to keep the movie's perfect audience - 13-to-17 year olds - away from the movie because it has a few too many "fucks" and a brief shot of bare breasts. Hopefully, teenagers will find a way to see the movie, even if they have to wait until its arrival on DVD. In the meantime, Charlie Bartlett is worth the price of admission for those adults who want to think back to high school and find out whether The Doctor Is In.

Charlie Bartlett (United States, 2007)

Director: Jon Poll
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis, Kat Dennings, Tyler Hilton
Screenplay: Gustin Nash
Cinematography: Paul Sarossy
Music: Christophe Beck
U.S. Distributor: MGM
Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2008-02-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1