Charlie Bartlett is basically Richie Rich Slings Dope. Charlie (Anton Yelchin), the titular brilliant, offbeat rich kid, has trouble fitting in at his new public high school (having run out of private schools to get kicked out of), so he decides to win friends and influence people by reselling his own prescription antidepressants to bummed out classmates. The kids who, two scenes prior, laughed at his starched private school blazer and mocked his cornball civility now line up outside the Boys’ Room to get their dope (Ritalin, Zoloft, etc.) along with some free counseling.
Yeah, it’s sitcom bewlshit, and, at several instances, audience members of a certain age will cry out, “John Hughes, where you at?!” (To say nothing of Max Fischer.) But don’t blame Gustin Nash’s screenplay, which seems to deserve better than director Jon Poll’s short attention span. Charlie Bartlett made me think of what the sublime Rushmore would have been like if adapted by the gang that made American Pie. Pretty thin. This film is cute and commercial, but often criminally negligent to a script that shows a deeper understanding of teen angst in the Paxil era. (Damned if that last sentence doesn’t sound like op-ed, pop-cult drivel, but it’s quite true.)
The scenes depicting Charlie’s zero-to-hero experience at the high school are so broad, loud and familiar that it’s sometimes hard to tell what decade the film is set in. Yes, there are cellphones and do-rags worn for fashion (in my day, they were strictly for preserving your s-curl, or for breakdancing), but there’s also graffiti-covered hallways and a punk-styled bully out of a Boogaloo Shrimp movie. Whatever. The comic strip quality of these scenes wouldn’t be so tiring if Poll was less attuned to the screenplay’s subtleties in the quieter moments between Charlie and his individual peers/patients. The film’s genuinely lovely idea is that kids are languishing in depression not because they have no one to talk to, but because their friendships and alliances rarely allow room for real conversations. Yeah, like The Breakfast Club. Even though Poll wisely avoids that teen classic’s mopey confessionals and crying jags, keeping the atmosphere buoyant, there is a thread of lament about just how poorly teens see each other.
The best scene in the film picks up on this thread when Charlie goes to visit a lonely kid (Mark Rendall) who overdosed on Charlie’s antidepressants. Charlie’s smooth talk won’t work on this distraught boy, but showing him sincere interest does. Although Poll clearly doesn’t want to go too far into the depths of adolescent fear, desire and confusion (see another, superior, Tribeca film, Two Embraces for that), Yelchin and Rendall almost take it there.
Early on, at Charlie’s home, we are treated to the strange spectacle of a wealthy mother (Hope Davis) and son living harmoniously without a father in the house. Before we learn that Mom’s serenity, too, comes from a pill bottle, it seems as if the filmmakers are up to something refreshingly novel—depicting an affluent family that actually enjoys its wealth and isn’t the least bit alienated by or divided over it. Charlie’s high school crush, Susan (Kat Dennings), seems to have a similarly laidback relationship with her father (Robert Downey Jr.), who is also the school’s despised principal. At home, he has Susan on a long leash, and their rapport is such that she freely admits to derisively calling him “The Principal” to her friends just to maintain the illusion that they’re as dysfunctional as all the other kids’ families. Still, while Charlie and Susan’s households may function, ultimately, their single parents’ aloofness has cost them their childhoods. Only in an environment of lax parenting and teaching can a kid like Charlie become the de facto school leader.
Another clever wrinkle in the teen movie formula is the way Charlie Bartlett sidesteps a showdown between Charlie and The Principal. Charlie is much smarter than, say, Ferris Bueller; when asked to lead a protest against security cameras installed in the student lounge, he refuses because he can see where both the kids and the school administration have valid points. This speaks to a radical notion that Poll pays only glancing attention to: Charlie is both a misfit and a leader because his powers of reasoning are so rare in a public school. The school structure tends to divide kids into conformists and rebels, but independent, empathetic thinkers like Charlie are shaped elsewhere.
Yelchin is well cast as Charlie. His angelic/courtly/sly/earnest presence suggests the kind of kid who everybody in class knows will be famous one day, either as a power player or a mass shooter. His energy has to go somewhere. The trouble with casting Downey as his foil is that he’s just as kinetic and charismatic. Downey does his best to embody a frustrated middle-aged school administrator, but we don’t buy it. Even drawing upon a backstory of The Principal’s addiction and failed recovery that resonates with Downey’s infamous off-screen history, he just has too much cool, smarts and presence to be anything but Charlie’s ally. When they finally do tussle (over Charlie dating his daughter), the fireworks are puny.
There is a much deeper, richer, weirder youth movie locked inside Charlie Bartlett, but I suspect it has already been made, by guys like Wes Anderson, Hal Ashby, Gregg Araki…
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.