Do you know what is like to fall on the floor cry your guts out 'till you got no more?
Hey man now you're really living.
Have you ever made love to a beautiful girl?
Made you feel like it's not such a bad world?
— "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)" by Mark Everett (The Eels)
Charlie Bartlett is the directorial debut of editor Jon Poll after his short film The Tree (1982), an exercise in audiovisual expression exploring man's violence against nature through rhythm and figures. Now Poll's second film Something Borrowed (2008) is in pre-production. Charlie Bartlett's screenwriter Gustin Nash also penned the script for Youth in Revolt (2008) with Miguel Arteta.
In Charlie Bartlett teen popularity is a state of mind.
After being expelled from his last private school for forging IDs, Charlie (Anton Yelchin) finds himself attending Western Summit High School, a public school — this time without his limo chauffeur Thomas — where he gets a brutal welcome from a school bully, Murphey Bivens (played by Tyler Hilton).
Charlie innocently translates a Latin inscription on his blazer — "Cor ad cor loquitur" — for a couple of curious bullies as "heart speaks to heart." They mock him and ask him if he is a total faggot or what? Charlie asks, "Is that a rhetorical question?"
He is beaten until his nose bleeds and his left eye turns black, a sign he is going to live in a dark ghetto thereafter; fortunately Murphey soon will reveal a less belligerent nature ("In fifth grade, I played Linus in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown and I was good") as he comes to know the new snotty boy and overlook the more irritating and snarky sides of Charlie, who tries to teach him how to dominate these bullying impulses, which Murphey calls "fists of fury."
A pretty drama student, Susan Gardner (Kat Dennings), mistakes Charlie for a teacher when she sees him wearing a tie, and she is immediately attracted by his quirky manners, offhand remarks, and his skills in improvising theatre comedy. She is the daughter of the school's principal Nathan Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), with whom she has a difficult relationship.
Maybe this unsatisfactory family bond is one of the reasons for the mutual attraction between Susan and Charlie. We learn that Charlie's father is locked up in prison due to a tax evasion conviction and his mother Marilyn Bartlett (Hope Davis) is a Klonopin-dependent, "invisible" nice mother who enjoys singing at the piano, "Those were the days…"
Looking for acceptance from the high school cliques, Charlie uses every session with his psychiatrist (to whom he confesses a dream fantasy: "I kind of have this one fantasy. It's just this fantasy of me stepping out on stage, and there are all these kids out in the audience, chanting my name, like I'm a rock star, you know.") to get prescription drugs (Ritalin, Xanax, Zoloft, etc.) which he then sells to his troubled classmates at a bargain price.
While the plot unfolds we can see some similarities with Harold and Maude (1971), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), or Juno (2007), but the references are very blurry and the character of Charlie is in fact original enough to sustain on its own an atmosphere that examines the new anxieties of a fearful, befuddled generation that longs to fit in but is too self-conscious and self-loathing to stand popularity for too long.
All the main characters show us a hidden facet — the principal was a retired history teacher, for example — questioning the usual stereotypes in teen movies. For example Murphey isn't a bitter tough guy, despite videotaping his bullying acts which he sells as "Greatest Afterschool Beatdowns" DVDs. He's also sensitive and has romantic intentions toward a blonde, promiscuous cheerleader, Whitney Drummond (Megan Park).