(MGM) Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis, Kat Dennings, Tyler Hilton, Mark Rendall, Dylan Taylor, Megan Park, Jeff Epstein. Directed by Jon Poll
One of the curses of humankind is our ability to forget as adults just how difficult it is to be a teenager. We forget what it means to be ignored. We forget what it is like to be unheard.
Charlie Bartlett (Yelchin) would seem to have an ideal teen life. He comes from money – a lot of it – and while his father is nowhere to be seen (his absence isn’t explained until near the end of the movie and giving you any detail about where he is would ruin the movie), his mother (Davis) is around, so to speak. She is popping pills and booze like there’s no tomorrow, so Charlie pretty much gets to do what he wants.
Predictably, what he wants is to rebel against authority and he gets kicked out of private school after private school until there are none left. The only alternative is (gulp) public school. Charlie approaches his new school with all the regard of a convict examining death row. His fears are soon realized. Charlie, hopelessly ill-equipped for public school survival, wears a tie and jacket to school and carries a briefcase. He might as well walk up to the school bully and announce “I’d like you to kick my ass at your earliest convenience.” Said bully, in the person of Murphy Bivens (Hilton), obliges him regularly.
Charlie’s mom, believing that her son could use a little guidance, sends him off to a battery of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and counselors, who prescribe him a variety of drugs. Charlie hits upon the idea of distributing these to the student body through his new pal and business partner Bivens, who recognizes a good business deal when he sees it.
Charlie also soon realizes his contact with psychiatrists and such have given him a little knowledge of the subject, and his status as a teenager gives him further insight into the teen condition. Soon, he begins having therapy sessions in the school bathroom and the kids, eager to be listened to by anyone, are lining up to vent.
Charlie also develops an attraction for Susan Gardner (Dennings), a pretty and surprisingly well-adjusted girl who returns his affections. This doesn’t sit well with her dad (Downey), who is as crappy a father as you are likely to see in a movie – when he isn’t drowning his sorrows in the study. You see, Susan’s dad has a thankless, nearly impossible job – he’s the principal at the school attended by Susan and Charlie.
Naturally, Charlie’s little enterprise doesn’t sit well with the powers that be and soon things come to a head. Charlie’s struggles against authority and authority’s tendency to react poorly to a challenge to that authority may land Charlie in deeper trouble than he has ever been in before.
Most teen comedies these days seem to revolve around unpopular guys trying to score with girls way, way, way out of their league. The bulk of them are raunchy and sexy, so it is somewhat refreshing to encounter a comedy aimed at teens that actually treats them with some respect rather than as hormone-crazed infants. Charlie is a fleshed out character who, while sharing a great deal in common with Ferris Bueller, still manages to be one of the most memorable 17-year-olds I’ve seen onscreen in awhile.
It doesn’t hurt to have one of the best actors of his generation to play off of, and Downey as usual delivers. He has a fairly thankless role that doesn’t require very much of him until near the end of the movie, but when the time comes for Downey to shine, he does with a vengeance. Yelchin is not a bad actor in his own right when he gets a good role, and he has one here and he makes the most of it. Sure, sometimes Charlie is arrogant and foolish but what teenager isn’t?
Yeah, there are some definite flaws here. For one thing, the adults are entirely unsympathetic on a nearly universal level; I understand the need to reinforce that kids feel un-listened to but I think that if you’re going to give kids credit to be smarter onscreen, give them the credit offscreen to be able to understand that not all adults are insensitive to their needs.
Still, this is a movie that has some ideas to share and while they aren’t always successful, director Poll and his team are successful enough to allow me to recommend this to teenagers unreservedly and to adults somewhat less so – certainly adults aren’t the target audience here, but those seeking out some insight into the teen psyche could benefit from a viewing.
WHY RENT THIS: An insightful theme that hits the mark from time to time. Terrific performances from Yelchin and Downey.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Like many movies meant to appeal to teens, adults are seen nearly uniformly as unsympathetic and/or flat-out stupid. Script is uneven despite the best intentions of the writers.
FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of rough language, some drug usage and brief nudity make this unsuitable for children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hope Davis, who plays Anton Yelchin’s mom here, also played his mom in the 2001 film Hearts in Atlantis.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The bathroom confessional scenes are re-created by the cast and crew.
FINAL RATING: 5/10
TOMORROW: Race to Witch Mountain