A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, R, 97 mins.
2008, R, 97 mins.
Anton Yelchin: Charlie Bartlett / Robert Downey Jr.:
Principal Gardner / Directed by Jon Poll / Written by Gustin Nash
Directed by Jon Poll / Written by Gustin Nash
BARTLETT is like the progeny of countless other teen high school films
that we have seen in wide abundance before.
You know, the ones with hopelessly unpopular misfits that manage to
garner some unexpected popularity from the masses in surprising ways; the
once unattainable pretty girl that has deeply buried emotional issues that
is won over by the misunderstood title hero; the caring and loving mother
figures that are well meaning, but are universally clueless about their
child’s issues and problems; the meek and unpopular nerd that is
suicidal and whose attempts at killing himself is pinned on the hero; and
finally the high school principal, who takes it upon himself to make life
miserable for the teen misfit hero.
BARTLETT has all of these staple ingredients, but what it does have going
for it is an intelligence and wit and a willingness to invest in its
character with more interest than so many other disposable and
wretched high school films. Yes,
the film is routine and often runs on auto-pilot, and there are several
moments where it's so mechanical that you can see precisely where it’s
heading at any given moment, but I found myself being ultimately won over
by the film’s freshness and honesty with its characters. Perhaps its best asset is its determination to present both the
title character – a 17-year-old teen than goes from an social outcast to
a celebrity – and its authority figures – more specifically, the
school principal – as flawed and multi-faceted personas.
BARTLETT does not engage in annoying hero worship of its adolescent protagonist,
nor does it denigrate the adult authority figures into one-note, cardboard
cutout drones that service the script’s need for easy villains.
More often than not, the film dies not try to be exasperatingly naïve
and narrow-minded with its characters: both the kids and adults grow to
understand and respect one another, which is kind of rare – and
refreshing – for these type of genre films.
Certainly, the film owes a huge debt to works like FERRIS
BUELLER’S DAY OFF, RISKY BUSINESS, PUMP UP THE VOLUME, and a bit of the
AMERICAN PIE films, but on a whole it holds itself up well as a teen angst
film that is more ambitious and smart than a lot of other recent
the title character is also not squeaky clean and without faults, which
makes him more interesting. Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin, a fine, natural actor) lives a WASP lifestyle to the hilt. He
resides in a large mansion that would put Bruce Wayne to shame and is largely
more of a parental figure to his mother than she is back to him.
The mom, Marilyn (Hope Davis, plucky and funny), is a ditzy,
pill-popping and alcoholic woman that loves her son to death,
even if he gets into serious trouble at every prep school he’s
attending. During the funny
opening scene, where she meets with the Dean of Charlie’s prep school,
she is informed that her young son is being expelled for running a fake
driver’s license lab. Of
course, Marilyn shrugs it off with a sly sense of pride instead of anger,
stating “You gotta admit, these sure look real” after seeing
Needless to say, not even a huge bribe can keep Charlie in this prep school, so he's now forced – gasp! – to attend public school. Predictably, his Dockers and Ivy League, tweed sport-coat wearing façade makes him a quick outcast, and a target for the obligatory school bully, Murphey Bivens (Tyler Hilton, oozing angry malevolence), who not only pummels the poor kid, but video tapes it so he can watch it later, over and over again.
Charlie’s mother grows so concerned about her son’s well being that she
sends him to a shrink, which culminates with him getting a big
prescription for Ritalin. He
gleefully takes it for a few days and discovers what a good, easy, and natural
high one can get off of the drug. Lightning
then strikes for the young go-getter and he hatches an ingenious plan to
take him towards a path to acceptance and popularity: He confronts Murphey, who previously pounded on him, to help
him sell Ritalin in the school to the kids, seeing as Murphey seems like a
guy who could handle this job. Charlie’s
plan then grows more clever and conveying: He purposely goes back to
several shrinks, faking symptoms, in order to get a diverse collection of
mood altering drugs to sell to the school kids.
Within no time, Charlie is patrolling the school hallways like a cocky
hustler and gains serious high school street cred, which further
materializes with him becoming the school’s secret psychologist; he holds
sessions in the boy’s washroom – he sits in one stall and his
patient’s take the adjacent ones.
the advice that Charlie dishes out reveals some keen insight into
understanding the problems of those who seek his help: He listens, does
not judge, and offers frank, to-the-point guidance.
He is also democratic, willing to talk to anyone and everyone,
regardless of stature. He
soon crosses paths with a cute girl named Susan (Kat Dennings, in a very
delicate and subtle performance) who is slightly damaged goods.
Her father (Robert Downey Jr.) has been divorced and is an
uncompromising loner. He also is
a drunk, often spending most of his nights in his study with a bottle.
He is also the school principle, which makes his daughter’s
growing love for Charlie a even greater sore spot for him, not to mention
the fact that he is getting heat from the school’s superintendent to
find a way to expel Charlie at risk of seeing his own job be taken.
revelations and plot developments of CHARLIE BARTLETT are nothing
groundbreaking. We know with
great certainty that Charlie will fall for the girl, much to the chagrin
of her principal father. We
know that Charlie will change the lives of those that once hated him,
especially the school bully. We
also know that Charlie will try to assist the stereotypical depressed kid,
only to see him attempt to kill himself, with the principal pointing blame
on Charlie. And we finally
will know that Charlie and the principal will have a climatic showdown…and
so on and so on.
the film overcomes it rudimentary formulas with its handling of its
characters and somewhat sobering themes.
CHARLIE BARTLETT does a modestly decent job of exploring issues of
teen popularity, acceptance, not to mention the potentially dangerous side
effects of drug use. The film also has some instances of fresh truthfulness with its
dialogue (one moment where Charlie asks the bully if he likes beating on
people is priceless in its simplicity: he thinks and then quietly
responds, “No, not really). The
central relationship between Charlie and Susan is poignant and endearing
without feeling manufactured.
importantly, I like the way the script allows for Charlie to develop a
sense of self-actualization: He starts off as a cocky and arrogant kid
that thinks he knows all of the answers and is the key to his fellow
classmates’ happiness, but he grows to understand that, deep down, he is
just a kid that really knows nothing.
Charlie himself is never idealized and held up for our instant
empathy: he’s a teen that is both likeable and disagreeable. You commend him for is willingness and compassion to help
others, but find him disagreeable for the way he initially uses drugs as a
gateway to friendship. Because
of this, Charlie is ultimately a blemished and imperfect persona, which
makes the film he populates more involving.
performances are universally solid. The
19-year-old, Leningrad-born Anton Yelchin is an interesting actor.
His mousy and meager enunciation is initially grating, but he
always manages to infuse his characters with a disarming vulnerability, charm and
affable wit (he
will next be seen playing the young Chekov in J.J. Abrams' prequel reboot of STAR
TREK, which will be interesting) and his scenes playing off of Robert
Downey Jr. are the film’s best. Downey
has the most thankless job in the film for the way he has to play up to
the conventions of the high school principal as a unsympathetic
antagonist, but the more you watch the film the more it reveals subtle
layers to this character’s personality and emotional state.
He is gutless and a wimp around his superintendent boss, a clumsy
and overtly suspicious father to Susan, and a rather vocal rival to
Charlie, but this character is given moments of understandable insight, as
is the case when he tells Charlie of the danger of dishing out drugs that
could have nasty, unwanted side effects.
He, like Charlie, is a fascinating character: He too yearns for
acceptance and understanding from those that hate him and I like how he
and Charlie find ways to cope with one another in order to grow as people.
One moment that involves a drunken Downey confronting Charlie near
the film’s conclusion is an unqualified scene-stealer.
A lesser actor would have made this scene preposterous and let the
principal come across as a clownish lout, but Downey
sells it and makes it believable.
CHARLIE BARTLETT is a high school teen comedy that is marred by its appropriation of the usual lamentable genre formulas, but the film as a whole succeeds with its under-the-radar and credible performances, its sincerity and earnestness with the material and themes, and its diplomacy it shows with its adolescent and adult characters. It does a good job of showing the neurotic anxiousness of what it means to be a teenager griping with daily dilemmas as well as showing the conflicted authority figures that try to smack some common sense into these distressed youth. Yes, CHARLIE BARTLETT feels routine, but it's never dull because of its smart and sly handling of its characters, which allows for it to get more of a passing grade over other banal and moronic teen flicks, the latter which often abuses the use of gross-out gags and juvenile humor. Thankfully, this film never feels compelled to substitute its honest moments with asinine jokes and pratfalls.