I recently decided to check out Netflix’s “Independent Movies” section, as many Lawrentians are wont to do when they have homework to complete. I begrudgingly scrolled past “Spy Kids” when I stumbled upon the film “Charlie Bartlett.” As soon as I saw a sly-looking Robert Downey Jr. squinting at me from a thumbnail of the movie poster, I knew resistance was futile.
The film begins with shots of a fanatic audience in a concert hall, screaming excitedly for a performer yet to be announced. A prep school boy comes onto the stage, Converse sneakers tied tight, announcing to all that he is Charlie Bartlett as the crowd’s chants grow to a deafening roar.
This joy is, as it turns outs, a dreamscape. Charlie, played by Anton Yelchin, has only imagined being loved exuberantly by others. The next scene introduces his wealthy mother, played by Hope Davis, who nonchalantly tries to bribe Charlie’s prep school headmaster into letting him stay. In addition to being a loner, Charlie is the innovative manufacturer of fake IDs; he has been caught and faces expulsion.
Within minutes, Yelchin and Davis have created a very detached mother-son duo for whom ethics can be negotiated and a certain level of sophistication is assumed. Charlie just wants to be liked by his peers, and his mother wants him to follow a straight and narrow path.
After his expulsion, Charlie enrolls in a public school where Robert Downey Jr. plays the resentful, alcoholic Principal Gardner whose rebellious daughter Susan, played by Kat Dennings, falls for Charlie once a return to social shenanigans increases his popularity.
The antics in question include seeing several psychiatrists, fabricating elaborate emotional backstories and procuring enough prescription drugs to become the resident pill-pusher of his new high school.
In addition to providing psychotropic indulgences to the unruly student body, Charlie’s charm and intelligence start to shine through, and he becomes the school’s unofficial therapist. Sharing advice with fellow classmates in the bathroom and making social connections, it would appear that Charlie has finally found a place for himself within the precarious social strata of adolescence.
As Charlie’s social clout increases so does the chaos that characterizes the high school. Harebrained schemes emerge, alliances are formed and the students start to question certain practices within their academic establishment. Moments of vivid pathos also arise and add a note of tragic realism to a movie that feels vaguely like a contemporary, medicated “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Released in 2007 and directed by Jon Poll, “Charlie Bartlett” was appreciatively received by audiences in the Tribeca Film Festival, the Cannes Film Market, the Maui Film Festival and the Cambridge Film Festival before it was shown in North American theatres. Some critics, however, described it as inconsistent—clever teenage angst, but presented in a muddled way.
I, on the other hand, enjoyed Poll’s ability to shed light upon his characters’ quirks and nuances, and the film’s pithy honesty. Basically, if you are feeling a deep sense of nostalgia for your adolescent social awkwardness, enjoy cinematic depictions of hyper-dramatic family tension or just want to immerse yourself in a shrewdly poignant story, you should watch “Charlie Bartlett.”