Review: Charlie Bartlett
3.5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
In an age in which children and teens are getting handed prescriptions for mood-altering drugs like candy, Charlie Bartlett can be viewed as either a perfect remedy or a bitter pill. It’s about the title character’s rise as a high school hero after he supplies his peers with narcotics and anti-depressants, and holds therapy sessions in the boys’ bathroom. The quick-witted comedy is continuously entertaining, but it’s often hard to juggle what kind of messages it’s sending to our perpetually over-medicated youth.
Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a boy who has everything going for him – he’s young, bright, handsome, charismatic and born into wealth. But Charlie was forced to grow up too fast. His father’s been sent to prison for tax evasion, his mother (a perfect-as-usual Hope Davis) is emotionally unstable, and at 17, he’s expected to be the man of the house, er, mansion. In reaction to that forced maturity, Charlie’s behavior is decidedly immature. He’s been kicked out of a handful of private schools, most recently for being caught selling homemade fake I.D.’s to half the student body. Mom finally decides to enroll Charlie in public school. Little does she know, her son is about to use his inherent gifts and skills to become the coolest high school sensation since Ferris Bueller.
Like Ferris, Charlie is obsessed with popularity, and has the likability and smarts to achieve it. After suffering a brief rejection from his new environment’s social circles, he evaluates their inner-workings and quickly finds a niche for himself: as the in-house psychiatrist. Taking from what he’s gathered from books and his family’s own on-call mental health physician, he begins dishing out advice to fellow students and writing them makeshift prescriptions, the supplies for which he gets by manipulating numerous professionals into thinking he has every mental and emotional disorder under the sun. He recruits the school bully as his personal assistant and dealer, and hires a mentally challenged fat kid to be his muscle. He even unwittingly begins dating the principal’s daughter, making his ultimate climb to adolescent royalty that much more kingly.
Yelchin (a former child star who was most recently seen as the missing teen in Nick Cassavetes’ Alpha Dog) plays Charlie in a vibrant, star-making performance. The challenging role requires an actor with charm to burn, but I’d imagine director Jon Poll and writer Gustin Nash got delightfully even more than they bargained for when Yelchin was cast. He exudes such natural skill as a performer that even in an over-the-top, hilariously tweaked audition scene for the school’s Shakespearian production, you can vividly imagine the real thing taking place and this lively kid getting immediate callbacks. Save for one silly montage in which Charlie has some adverse reactions to an experimental treatment of Ritalin, there’s nary a false note in Yelchin’s acting. His portrayal makes you, the audience, proud members of the ever-burgeoning Charlie Bartlett fan club.
That fan club causes big trouble for Principal Gardner, who himself has a substance abuse problem, and is played by Robert Downey, Jr., of all people. With the superintendent breathing down his neck and Charlie breathing down his daughter’s, the distraught but well-intended Gardner starts to unravel along with the integrity of his school after Charlie turns the students into an army of free-thinkers. Soon, he has no one left to turn to but the resident head-shrinker, and the film offers up a series of heartfelt moments between the surrogate dad and the fatherless rebel.
Charlie Bartlett is a four-leaf clover in a vast field of poorly crafted teen comedies. It’s fresh, it’s topical, it’s well-acted, and its heart is in the right place. The problem is, what is being portrayed in the film can be taken two very different ways. While it’s obvious that Poll and Nash are commenting on the current, potentially devastating trend of psychiatrists prescribing ADHD meds to any pimple-faced kid that enters their office, showing a teenager gain superstardom and receive little to no punishment for taking advantage of that trend isn’t exactly the best way to counter-act it. And though the movie throws in obvious consequences like a student overdose and an authoritative intervention, the fact remains that the hero becomes such (in part, anyway) by dealing drugs and getting away with it. I definitely recommend the film, but I also recommend that young viewers consume its themes in mild to moderate doses.