High school is a difficult place to depict on screen. It's not necessary to paint a painstakingly realistic portrait of high school as long as you steer clear of the tired, silly clicheacute;s that plague many movies involving teenagers. John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club), for example, made a career out of writing and directing high school films that didn't operate within realistic boundaries but still managed to feel fresh, candid and well written.
Charlie Bartlett is long-time editor Jon Poll's (Austin Powers) directorial debut. In an interview with The Beacon, Poll said he wanted to make a film with "humor, heart and something on its mind." While his first film manages to sparkle occasionally-largely due to some terrific performances - Charlie Bartlett ends up falling flat, collapsing under the weight of its own efforts. Because the story is centered around the subject of prescription drugs and the rampancy of its abuse among teens, it is a risky undertaking for a directorial debut.
Regardless, "risky" does not equal "complex and impossible to pull off." Charlie Bartlett could easily have been a very good movie, but unfortunately, it fails to generate laughs and instead proves to be awkward, jarring and stale.
Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin, Hearts in Atlantis, Alpha Dog) has been kicked out of every private school he's ever attended. Although he comes from a wealthy family and is very intelligent, Charlie cannot function in a social atmosphere and instead spends most of his time at school making fake IDs and profiting from these laminating skills. He's ambitious in all of the wrong areas and his single mother (Hope Davis) cannot find the strength to punish him for his missteps.
She does, however, decide to enroll him in a public school for the first time in his life. After a few weeks in which Charlie strives for acceptance, he finds his niche in the role of school psychiatrist-swapping a couch for a toilet and operating out of the stalls in the boy's bathroom.
By feigning symptoms at his own therapy sessions, Charlie obtains prescription drugs and begins selling them to his peers, not just for recreational use, but as they were intended. This path leads him to Susan (Kat Dennings, The 40-Year-Old-Virgin), a fellow student and daughter of the principal (Robert Downey Jr.). Due to Charlie's romance with Susan and unconventional ideas for helping his peers, what results is a power struggle between Charlie and the principal.
Charlie Bartlett, on paper, sounds like an interesting idea in a time when the high school years are becoming more complex due to current teenage temptations, like the abuse of prescription drugs. The film begins to falter, however, when the story takes too many side routes and drags through subplots that are of no interest or relevance.
There are simply too many characters here and they all have a story to tell. There's nothing wrong with an ensemble cast, but every time the film diverges, it inevitably brings up the same trite message: "Be yourself, do not be afraid to fail." The few instances where the viewer feels compelled to watch a story develop, it is zipped through as quickly as possible, as if it were an afterthought. The audience finds itself wondering what happened to old characters and their (sometimes unnecessary) subplots, and why the script is taking such awkward turns.
There are too many bizarre story choices, one involving Charlie taking too much of his ADHD medication (a sequence almost embarrassing in its desperation), and a strangely out of place sex scene, which is brief, but still undeniably weird. Another moment of jaw-dropping miscalculation involves the film's slow-motion sex montage.
While the montage is not explicit, the scene still could have been implied just as easily. It stirs up the question; "why was this filmed, and why was it filmed like this?" Afterward, Charlie, disheveled and post-coitus, announces to a crowd of hundreds of his peers that he is no longer a virgin. His girlfriend watches from the sidelines of the party in the loft where they just slept together, smiling smugly to herself as if to say, "Oh that wacky Charlie Bartlett! What'll he do next?"
Despite these incomprehensible story decisions, Poll could certainly have done worse. As it stands, he manages to get excellent performances out of a talented group of young actors, while Robert Downey Jr. steals every scene he's in, something he has recently made a habit of doing.
Despite the script's problem, Yelchin devotes himself to the titular role and gives a wonderful performance, proving to be a natural actor.
When asked about the process of casting Charlie Bartlett, Poll replied, "People used to ask me, before I found Anton, who was going to be in the movie, and I'd say, 'Well maybe we can get Bud Cort four years before he did Harold and Maude.'" Anton Yelchin hits every note with precision and pulls off a very difficult role.
The primary problem with Charlie Bartlett, however, has less to do with Poll's direction and more with Gustin Nash's screenplay, which takes an original idea and smothers it by tackling too much.
When the film succeeds in relaying its moral, its originality vanishes, and there's nothing new to see here. Charlie Bartlett is commendable for taking a risk and tackling urgent issues, but it baffles more than it entertains.