Running Time 97 minutes
Written by Gustin Nash
Directed by Jon Poll
Starring Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, Robert Downey Jr.
One positive note about the movie business: As reliable as it is at guaranteeing a surfeit of crap, it still promises an occasional pleasant surprise. Gratefully, I salute the inventiveness, imagination and cockeyed teenage humor in a delightful new movie called Charlie Bartlett. It picks up where Juno left off.
Like Ellen Page in that irreverent new look at upbeat teenage psychosis passing itself off as normal, Anton Yelchin, the Russian-born wunderkind who established himself, when he was 12, as an all-American talent beyond his years opposite Anthony Hopkins in Hearts in Atlantis, plays a teenager finding his inner lost soul in the days before college by marching to the sound of his own off-tempo bongo beat. Charlie is brilliant, privileged, rich and so anxious to be liked in his exclusive New England prep school that he runs a laminating press in his dorm room and sells illegal driver’s licenses and other forms of identification for underage teens. He’s already been kicked out of just about every other upscale academic institution on the East Coast, so this is the last straw. Maybe he’s just a chip off the old block. Make that two old blocks. His father, who is never seen, has his own felonious problems, since he is serving time in a federal corrections facility for income tax invasion, and his flaky, pill-popping mother (hilariously well played by the versatile, polished and always reliable Hope Davis) hangs around the family mansion with a chauffeur and an endless supply of Courvoisier, humming show tunes.
Without a clue as to how to save Charlie, Mom sends him to a public high school for a lesson in discipline and civics. Of course, Charlie is the kind of handsome preppie, fresh from the barber shop, who enrages the school bully by arriving in a limousine carrying an attaché case and wearing a monogrammed blazer and rep tie. Black eyes, bloody noses and knots on his head the size of jumbo eggs become daily routines. To achieve popularity in a contemporary version of Blackboard Jungle, Charlie will try anything. He even auditions for the school play in drag, a bold move tantamount to standing blindfolded in front of a firing squad. His final coffin nail is his sudden attachment to Susan Gardner (Kat Dennings), the daughter of the school principal (Robert Downey Jr.), and a real Ellen Page clone who pretends to hate her father in order to maintain a certain popular status of her own on campus. Now, in addition to the campus thugs, it’s the principal who declares war. Charlie is doomed. He even goes home to a package from his mom that says “Ritalin in bag, dinner in oven.”
But wait. This movie is just getting started. Charlie Bartlett is so brilliant that he comes up with a master war strategy that would thrill General George S. Patton. Putting his family history of shrinks and drugs to work, Charlie becomes the school psychopharmacologist. Here’s how it works: He listens to all of the other students’ problems, describes their symptoms to a battery of shrinks paid for by his neurotic mother, collects pockets full of prescriptions and then sells the medications to his schoolmates, becoming a pint-size Dr. Feelgood overnight and even winning over his worst enemy by making him a business partner. Before you can say “Rite-Aid,” Charlie’s got the entire student body on Xanax, Prozac, Zoloft, Valium, Wellbutrin, Ecstasy and a few other things he can’t even pronounce. Never has a dark horse risen to heights of heroism so fast. At the same time, Charlie conducts free-of-charge private psychiatric counseling sessions in the school toilet, turning troubled kids into candidates for Stepford endowments.
Don’t panic. The tables turn, of course, just in time to prevent the appalled grinches and anal-retentive adults in the audience from attacking the film for promoting drugs (and missing all the fun in the process). But while it lasts, the outrage is laugh-out-loud funny and served by a perfect gang of appealing, mischievous collaborators. Ms. Davis is pluperfect as the clueless mom whose hand seems permanently attached to a glass of something intoxicating. Mr. Downey gets his best role in years as the beleaguered, befuddled and terminally bewildered principal, and he looks good, too. He’s been embalmed in so many movies that it’s nice to see him healthy and clean-cut as an aging preppie for a change. Mr. Downey’s double-entendres in his rant against drugs and alcohol are doubly amusing, if you get my drift. But the real revelation is Mr. Yelchin, who adds to his growing gallery of sweet, misunderstood, sensitive and vulnerable teenagers this portrait of a whiz kid who sings, dances, plays Cat Stevens on the piano and loses his virginity to great applause. Writer Gustin Nash and director Jon Poll blend them all into a quirky, eccentric whole. The relationships between the young ensemble cast members are clearly and believably defined, and after meeting Charlie, they all turn out to be better people than they were before. The mangy, pierced and tattooed school bully (nice work by Tyler Hilton) even ends up looking like the cover of Men’s Vogue. Call Charlie Bartlett a new definition of teenage rehab.