by HELEN GEIB
If I had seen Charlie Bartlett when I was seventeen, I would have enjoyed it very much. I open my review with that statement not to denigrate the film or my taste when I was a teenager, but to identify the audience for this movie. At some point in my mid-twenties, I realized that I no longer took any interest in stories about juvenile romances or the travails of high school life. Charlie Bartlett is a movie for people who still take an interest.
The story opens with Charlie’s (Anton Yelchin) expulsion from boarding school, the last in a long line of private school expulsions and precursor to his enrollment in public high school. He is 17, smart, precocious, from a very wealthy family, and just enough of an oddball to stand out and have a hard time making friends. He lives with his loving and slightly kooky mother, played by Hope Davis, and the family’s butler. The father is absent from the home, for reasons the film gradually reveals in hints and pieces.
At his new school, Charlie gets a crush on Susan (Kat Dennings), a confident, pretty girl who wears too much makeup and belongs to the drama club. Her father, played by Robert Downey Jr., is the principal. Mr. Gardner has his own issues stemming from alcoholism and a messy divorce. Charlie’s other important relationship is his business partnership turned friendship with Murphey (Tyler Hilton), the school’s resident delinquent.
Charlie and Murphey’s business is the under the table sale of drugs prescribed to Charlie by the series of psychiatrists his concerned mother sends him to see. Charlie turns therapist to the student body, dispensing common sense advice with the pills. For Charlie, this is merely his latest get-popular-quick scheme. For the movie, it is topical commentary on the widespread abuse of prescription medication and a vehicle for drama when one of his “patients” proves to have more serious psychological problems than can be solved by homespun advice.
Charlie Bartlett is not badly made or without entertainment value, but it is very formulaic. The script wears its debt to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club proudly, but it does make some attempts to update the formula. The dramatic storyline, which takes Charlie and Susan’s struggles to cope with the breakdown of their families as its principal focus, is one of the attempts.
The other is the unusually deep characterization of their parents. The script devotes much more attention than is typical for the genre to Charlie’s mom and Susan’s father, especially to Mr. Gardner who develops into a surrogate father for Charlie. The actors’ contribution to the characterization should not be underestimated; Davis and Downey Jr. are consummate scene stealers.
Nevertheless, most of the film is simply a familiar story of a likable misfit’s sometimes misguided attempts to become popular and get a girlfriend. The movie inhabits the genre’s customary fantasy world: all the important characters are articulate and good-looking; teenage experimentation with sex and drugs is healthy and never leads to life-changing negative consequences; and the divides of social class and dissimilar experiences are easily bridged.