Not only is this the second film to open this weekend that features a cast member from the Star Trek redux (star Anton Yelchin will be Chekhov and Vantage Point's Zoe Saldana is set to play Uhura), it is the second film that plays like a smash-up of two earlier films.
In this case it combines the renegade spirit of Ferris Bueller's Day Off with a little of the aesthetic and psychiatry of Running With Scissors. The end result falls somewhere in between the two; while it does not rise to the level of Ferris Bueller, it is much more watchable and, dare I say, feels more real than Scissors. It features an engaging lead character and takes a look at the effects of prescription drugs and the ignored and alienated youth of the nation.
Charlie Bartlett (Yelchin) is a bright young kid who cannot help but find himself in trouble as he is constantly rebelling against the status quo. As the movie opens, he has been kicked out of the latest in a string of private schools. His mother, Marilyn (Hope Davis), does not seem to understand his need to rock the boat, but at the same time she does not seem particularly upset about it. Anyway, rather than try another private school, Charlie is enrolled in the local public school. He promptly shows up in suit and tie which leads to his first high school beat-down at the hands of Murphey Bivens.
Following his pummeling, he finds himself in the office of the family's on-call psychiatrist. The visit results in a prescription for Ritalin, the effects of which on kids without the need for it have been well documented. So, after a few days of taking the drug, he finds that it could be put to better use. He joins forces with the school bully and sells the pills to the rest of the school population.
This experiment leads to him opening a pharmacy of sorts in the boys' room. He listens to problems, takes them to his doctor, gets the prescription, and then dispenses them as needed to his fellow students, for a healthy fee of course. His dispensing of the medication finds his popularity rising exponentially. Almost overnight he goes from being the weirdo outcast to the epitome of popularity, and Charlie is loving it.
Of course, his popularity doesn't last long, as the principal (Robert Downey Jr.), whose daughter he is dating, is clued in to what he is doing and sets out to stop it. Now, you will probably be able to see where it is heading relatively early on — it is not about hiding where it is going.
The film is quite interesting in the way it takes a look at the effects of prescription drugs on kids who may or may not need them. It seems like every day we learn of high school kids abusing prescription drugs, be it Ritalin or whatever else they can get their hands on. While generally it seems like the kids are the ones to take the blame for their abuse, in many cases it may not be their fault at all. Charlie Bartlett turns its eye on the disillusioned youth who have nowhere else to turn. Beyond that, it also looks at the effects of popularity and how easily it can be misused. This doesn't even begin to touch on other key components of Charlie's dysfunction: an absentee parent, an overly medicated mother, and being forced to mature before his time, all elements that could be pointed to as reasons for his need to act out and his desire for popularity.
Granted, none of the ground covered is terribly new. We have seen much of this before and the tone is all over the place, but there is something rather engaging about Charlie Bartlett. A large part of the film's success can be laid at the feet of Anton Yelchin, who does not strike the image of your standard teenage hero; rather he beings to mind those teen icons of the '80s, primarily Matthew Broderick and Christian Slater, while still managing to forge a new image. He moves effortlessly across the screen, delivering a character that feels as random as it does calculated.
It doesn't hurt that Yelchin has great chemistry with the rest of the cast, particularly with Kat Dennings, who plays his love interest, Susan. Their relationship crackles as it develops. Then there are the scenes he shares with Robert Downey Jr., also excellent. The cast is particularly strong.
Director Jon Poll makes the transition from the editing bay to the director's chair in fine fashion. He does not have a particularly distinctive style, but he does cast a loving gaze to the teen films of the '80s while retaining a perfectly contemporary look. The same can be said of the screenplay from Gustin Nash, also making his big screen debut. His words touch on a number of important topics that all tie together with the affable central character.
Bottom line. If anything, the film's wild tone shifts hold it back from greatness. It does prove to be much more entertaining than might be expected. It is at times laugh out loud funny, at other times it takes a satirical bent, while other moments are pure drama. It is well worth your time, though; the positives well outweigh the negatives.