In Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts comic strip, eight-year-old entrepreneur Lucy van Pelt ran a psychiatric version of a children’s lemonade stand offering questionable advice for the budget price of a shiny nickel. In the hit 1970s television series Happy Days, the compulsively leather jacket-clad Fonzie commandeered the men’s room at Arnold’s which he turned into his “office” in order to share his own brand of questionable pearls of wisdom with the Milwaukee teens, preferring his age group’s highly coveted currency of cool points in lieu of coinage.
More than thirty years later, when it comes to the perilous task of coming of age — whether you’re eight or eighteen — popularity still reigns supreme. And in the feature filmmaking debut from both director Jon Poll and writer Gustin Nash, the two combine the aforementioned pop culture concepts with pharmacological precision, managing to mix in classic teen films from the decades that followed including Harold and Maude, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Say Anything, Clueless, Rushmore, and Mean Girls to create the perfect prescription cocktail with minimal side effects, aside from a high likelihood of audience addiction to their film, Charlie Bartlett.
In the titular role, television actor Anton Yelchin turns in a winning performance as the mischievous yet terribly bright wealthy high school student Charlie Bartlett. After getting ejected from the latest in a string of prep schools for unacceptable behavior, including running a fake ID laminating press in order to be liked by his classmates, Charlie finds he’s left his exasperated, neurotic mother Marilyn (Hope Davis) no choice but to pack him off to public school.
Fearing he’d make the wrong impression by arriving via his family’s chauffeur, unfortunately Charlie (like Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer in Rushmore) neglects to realize that perhaps wearing his prep school uniform and packing an attaché case isn’t the wisest way to fit in. Sure enough, after first accidentally boarding the “short bus” for challenged students with special needs, he arrives only to find himself the victim of a toilet “swirly” by the school bully Murphy Bivens (Tyler Hilton). Undaunted, he continues to try and put his best foot forward by greeting everyone with “Hi, I’m Charlie,” even going so far as to write it in a note to Susan Gardner (Kat Dennings), the beautiful girl who’d originally caught his eye but assumed he was a teacher. Ultimately Charlie ends up sitting with his friends from the short bus at lunch.
After spending time with the family shrink they have on retainer and being erroneously prescribed Ritalin, Charlie has an epiphany to recruit Murphy to become, if not his friend, then his business partner in selling the prescriptions at the school dance. Soon enough, Charlie’s access to mood-altering medication makes him the go-to guy for all of his fellow classmates who begin lining up in the hallway for their opportunity to have a psychiatric consultation with the precocious new kid. By this time, Charlie has not only begun reading psychiatric and medical books to aid what ails his classmates but has also started shrink shopping to get the right pills in the hands of the right students who want to avoid parental embarrassment and HMO woes on their path to mental stability.
Naturally, the long lines for the men’s room begin to garner the attention of Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), who not only has professional concern for the well-being of his students but is especially irked when he realizes that his daughter Susan has become the target of Charlie’s affections. Worried the boy is just after his daughter for bragging rights, Principal Gardner tries to put a stop to all of Charlie’s extracurricular activities, alienating himself from his colleagues, students, and Susan in the process before viewers begin to realize that — despite their age and situations — Gardner and Charlie have much more in common than one would think. They both desperately want to be liked and are prone to self-medication, with the principal's preference being unwinding with a bottle of booze while piloting a motorized boat in his family’s pool. In a different world, it’s apparent the two could have been friends, but when fatherhood and professionalism enter the equation, all bets are off. However, it’s the genius of the writing by Gustin Nash and Jon Poll’s sensitive direction that they never manage to sweep these issues under the rug, making each character equally vulnerable, equally innocent, and equally culpable in the scheme of things.
And while it seems like it’s the darkest subject matter for a teenage comedy to involve such a plethora of prescription medication, the filmmakers don’t handle this lightly at all, as Charlie’s actions do involve consequences; yet the tone of the film is far sunnier and more approachable than the superior yet icy Wes Anderson film, Rushmore. With a strong homage to Harold and Maude throughout as Cat Steven’s “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” is utilized numerous times to great effect, Bartlett seems to be the latest Generation Y incarnation of Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller. You just know he’d never do anything to actually endanger a fellow human being, instead realizing that — much like his clueless friends — he’s lost the unattainable map directing them on their path from adolescence to adulthood as they struggle to find their way.
And while Charlie Bartlett's final act seems a bit rushed and far-fetched, the intelligence of the writing and the refreshingly earnest and sweet natured approach to the otherwise tired and overpopulated genre of crass, highly sexualized and cynical teen films, not only reminded me of a junior companion piece to Lawrence Kasdan’s Capraesque Mumford (also starring Hope Davis) but also earned Charlie Bartlett a spot at the head of the class of 2008 as this reviewer’s pet.