The first thing you need to understand about Charlie Bartlett is that it’s really not doing anything new. It’s your typical teenager coming-of-age story, owing a large debt of gratitude to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (really the entire Hughes oeuvre) and Harold & Maude, among others. Where this one succeeds is in good performances, a lack of any particularly dated cliches (no Diablo Cody-isms here!), and a solid reminder that the kids aren’t the only ones that are screwed up.
Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is a rich kid, being raised by his eccentric mom (Hope Davis). His dad would appear to be in absentia. As you might expect, this becomes a semi-major plot point later on. Charlie is very bright, but uses his many skills mainly to make himself popular with his peers. This decision has apparently gotten him kicked out of a large number of private schools, most recently for starting up a flourishing fake ID business. Thus, Charlie goes to public school, where he falls in love with the principal’s daughter (Kat Demmings) and achieves popularity by becoming the school shrink; a job title that involves not only dispensing advice to his peers, but also medications for their various problems. He manages this by studying up on his friend’s symptoms and then shamelessly abusing his vast network of therapists, who seem intent on solving all of Charlie’s “problems” with drugs. Meanwhile, the establishment, ineffectually represented by the school principal (Robert Downey, Jr.), tries to maintain control. In the end, Charlie learns that he doesn’t have all the answers, and that perhaps the best way to help others face their problems is to first face one’s own.
See what I mean? It’s a pretty standard plot, really. But the performances carry this one. Yelchin does a truly admirable job of holding up the film on his scrawny young shoulders, alternating worldly wisdom with wide-eyed naivete a la his predecessor, Mr. Bueller. The difference, however, is that Bueller seems to take his high-school popularity for granted, whereas that status is the one burning desire for Bartlett, and one that he learns goes a bit beyond merely supplying high schoolers with fake IDs or Ritalin. Yelchin’s young counterparts, particularly Kat Demmings, Tyler Hilton (as the Morrissey-doppelganger teenaged thug with a sensitive side), and Mark Rendall (as the depressed loner) back up their star wonderfully, portraying the various aspects of teen angst (need for independence from parents, concerns about image/reputation, struggles for relevance) with sensitivity and charm.
The adults of the film, Hope Davis and Robert Downey, Jr., are equally convincing as the deeply-flawed authority figures in Charlie’s life. It will come as no surprise to anyone, I’m sure, that Downey is the stand-out here. His performance is, as usual, layered and magnetic … his character, a history teacher-turned-principal, is struggling to make the leap from educator to administrator, all while dealing with the disintegration of his marriage and the demands of raising a teenaged daughter on his own. His main method of coping appears to be found in a bottle-a detail which I found moving considering Downey’s own past. One could see it as slightly manipulative, perhaps, to use Downey for such a role, but I prefer to see it as daring on his part in that he was willing to address his own issues in order to give depth to his character.
Besides the performances, what I enjoyed about this movie was its freshness and its willingness to approach a fairly typical subject (teenagers) in a way that didn’t try to take itself too seriously. Nor did it make light of the topic. It’s a funny movie, but none of the characters are played purely for laughs. The problems the kids are facing range from a desire for plastic surgery to abusive parents, which gave the film a certain gravity and a sense of realism. The adults are neither god-like nor comedic in their cluelessness, but rather are shown as individuals with their own problems, people who make mistakes and learn as they go just like the kids they’re trying to raise. It’s not a brilliant movie by any stretch, but I really felt as though it was an honest one that was trying to be sympathetic of its characters. Some of the dialogue is a little stunted, some of the plot points are a little too convenient, but overall, it was entertaining and meaningful. Definitely a must if you’re a fan of Yelchin or Downey, you want to fondly reminisce on your own high school misadventures, or perhaps if you’re facing parenthood and need a reminder of what it was like to be seventeen.
To sum up:
Principal Gardner: Charlie, there are more important things than popularity!
Charlie Bartlett: Like what? Cause I’m seventeen. And right now, popularity’s pretty damn important!
Principal Gardner: Like what you do with that popularity.