The film “Charlie Bartlett” is a rollicking pied piper story sweetly subversive enough to attract young film goers yet has the moral fiber to gain the accolades of more mature audiences. In this adolescent coming-of-age movie popularity is the central theme and the efforts of director Jon Poll and screenwriter Gustin Nash have created a charismatic original that has all the ingredients of a summer-time hit.
In the opening scene, we know what 17-year-old Charlie Bartlett (Yanton Yelchin) wants, acceptance. That’s the crux of his problem for he believes that friendship and acceptance are based on pleasing others. When he is forced out of a prestigious boarding school for making fake ID’s for fellow students, his out-of-touch mother (Hope Davis) offers little in the way of guidance. He enrolls in a local public school and travels on the Special Ed school bus to avoid being ridiculed for arriving in the family’s limo. After being beaten up by the school bully (Tyler Hilton) Charlie quickly learns that the key to survival and popularity lies in offering perks to his fellow students. When his psychiatrist prescribes Ritalin for his lack of concentration and he experiences the side affects he hits upon a new way to gain peer adulation, dispensing drugs. However, Charlie soon realizes that the problems of his fellow students cannot be solved through medication alone, and embarks on a new career as a high school therapist. His office is in the bathroom stalls of the boy’s bathroom and the scenes there are poignant yet still funny. They conjure up the images of a confessional as parties sit side by side separated by a stall partition.
Charlie gets very friendly with Susan (Kat Dennings) who happens to be the daughter of the school principal and single parent (Robert Downey Jr.). Downey suffers from alcoholism as well as communication issues with his daughter. There is also the problem of the surveillance cameras in the student lounge, a metaphor for the electronic tethering today’s teenagers endure. In this comedy, problems and tough issues are brought to light in a humorous and clever way. And while the film hits on the miss-use of prescription medication as a way of treating teenage problems, it also brings up the lack of communication between parents and their kids as well as school administrators.
Anton Yelchin plays the role of Charlie with lightness and charm winning over his fellow students as well as the film’s audience. Robert Downey, Jr. role as the school’s principle is multidimensional and alive with dramatic undercurrents. The stress of the job, raising a teen daughter, and facing a student body that listen more to Charlie than him creates a lot of turmoil. The school bully as portrayed by Tyler Hilton has the tough outer veneer, but underneath is the vulnerability of a misunderstood teenager. Charlie’s love interest Susan, played by lovely and sensual Kat Dennings, bravely supports his causes, and even turns him into a non-virgin.
While the film has plot holes, the story will still hits home with a good number of viewers, especially youngsters growing up in today’s fragmented families. In families where there is no time or empathy to listen, to reach out and communicate. And to the young or even to the struggling mature, Charlie Bartlett is a hero, not because he takes on the villains, but simply because he is willing to listen. When he says, “Do you want to talk about it,” it opens the door to compassion and understanding, and often, finding solutions. In the end, Charlie’s need for acceptance is overtaken by the joy he finds in helping others.
Film was directed by Jon Poll, written by Gustin Nash, and stars Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis, Kat Dennings, Tyler Hilton, and Mark Rendall. Film was shot in Toronto by Canadian lenser Paul Sarossy. Running time is 97 minutes. Rated R for language, drug content and brief nudity. Available on DVD.