Charlie Bartlett begins as a somewhat typical coming-of-age teen comedy, but by the second act it had me thinking it's an original idea with some clever dialogue and stand-out performances. Though many are comparing it to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), I thought in some ways it mirrors the more recent Juno, last year's Oscar-nominated film.
Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is a wealthy kid being raised by his often clueless mother (Hope Davis). When he gets kicked out of his posh private school for making illegal driver's licenses for the students, her only comment is what a good job he did.
Mom insists that Charlie now attend public school. He arrives there like a soft sponge in a sea of scouring pads, stepping from his limo in his preppie jacket and carrying an attaché case. But he's a bright young man and has the ability to soak up the atmosphere around him. In a matter of days Charlie becomes the "man on campus."
How does he accomplish this? Simply by realizing every teenager thinks their problems are life-threatening. Charlie has been seeing a shrink for some time. In fact, in one session the therapist advised him to act more normal in order to fit in at his new school. Charlie replies, "My family has a psychiatrist on retainer. What's normal about that?"
So the lad plows through psychology books and sets up a practice in the boys' bathroom where he sits in one stall while both sexes of students stream in to take the stall next to him and hear his words of wisdom. While advice is free, Charlie teams up with Murphey (Tyler Hilton) the school bully – one who beat him up several times during his first days at school – to make money and to calm the kids down. They start selling prescription drugs, first his mother's, then ones that Charlie's psychiatrist prescribes when Charlie pretends to have symptoms he learns about from his books.
While this scenario sounds grave, it's really handled more like a satire, as the focus of this movie is Charlie. Yelchin, a young actor who has done many TV roles, performs delightfully here and is absolutely priceless in this movie. Charlie waves his irresponsibility like a flag yet he's suave, savvy, mild-mannered, and never thinks twice about his next move. One of his first actions in the school is to befriend the underdogs and nerds. However, when things get to a fever pitch and the students are boycotting Principal Gardner's (Robert Downey Jr.) decision to put cameras in the student lounge, Charlie has to think twice about his actions.
Charlie complicates this issue when he starts dating Gardner's daughter, Susan (Kat Dennings). Gardner's life is already unpleasant. He's a single dad, who drowns dislike of his job in a bottle, but holds a tight rein on his daughter. And he definitely does not approve of Charlie Bartlett. Yet the enterprising young man works his magic with this problem as well.
The script by new screenwriter Gustin Nash is very clever, especially in developing Charlie's character. While Charlie walks though life exceptionally cheerful and seemingly impenetrable, at his core he's really in turmoil about his missing father, a subplot revealed near the end of the movie. Nash also infuses the story with funny moments that move beyond bathroom humor and unfold through some great performances, such as that of Hope Davis as Charlie's slightly out-of-touch mother.
Robert Downey Jr. effectively combines the concerned dad and the disillusioned principal into a compelling character, thereby making the movie even more resonant. Kat Dennings (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) is also terrific as the subdued and apprehensive teen who wants her independence. Watch for Dennings to quickly make her mark in this business.
Granted, there are some cliché moments in Charlie Bartlett, but its combined intelligence and humor really work. I’m pleased that it's a movie older teens and parents can see together — a rare thing today. The film received an "R" rating, so it's not for anyone under 17, but the movie takes the reality of today's teen culture and — through many hilarious moments and serious ones as well — offers reflections of how these situations might be resolved. And let's face it — we can all use some genuine laughs these days.