Every once in a while someone makes a movie that attempts to be more significant than it actually is. Charlie Bartlett almost feels like a wannabe Juno, which is funny because the director of the former, Jon Poll, mentioned that he chose to direct Charlie Bartlett instead of the highly successful Juno. While both films focus on the lives of idiosyncratic teenagers as they struggle to find their role in the hectic world of high school, Charlie Bartlett falls prey to the over-emphasized importance placed on that period of time in a person’s life by authoritative figures.
In a sense, the movie promotes what it appears so adamantly to disapprove of: the conformity of pubescent teenagers to social norms.
The plot constitutes a mishmash of several other more original stories presented in such films as Rushmore, Harold and Maude and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The audience is introduced to Charlie Bartlett, the main character serving as the inspiration for the title of the film, as he imagines himself in front of a cheering crowd. Soon after it is revealed that he is being kicked out of private school for serving as the student body’s main source of fake IDs. Because Charlie has been expelled from every private school near his home, the only place left for him to turn is a public high school.
It is at this run-down public school where Charlie finds his niche as a faux-psychiatrist for the entire student body. An inexplicably rich boy with a pill-popping mom (Hope Davis), Charlie uses his family psychiatrist to gain access to a variety of psychoactive drugs, which he then sells to the student body with the help of Murphey, the school bully.
This entire process continues for some time throughout the film, apparently without any significant notice given by any of the school staff, including the alcoholic Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.). However, Charlie does become a thorn in the principal’s side not only by inadvertently rallying the student body against him, but by dating his only daughter.
As the film progresses Charlie increases in popularity as the students begin to protest the installation of cameras in their so-called student lounge. The consequences of Charlie’s actions become apparent when he is unsuccessful in helping a student. The event causes a small backlash and further polarizes Charlie and the principal until a final encounter, which enlightens both characters but deprives the viewer of any kind of realistic conclusion.
The main qualm I had with the film was in the dry and wooden acting given by the lead actor, Anton Yelchin, who played Charlie. This made it hard to sympathize with his character, which was a key point of the film, and resulted in a general “meh”-attidude from me when it came to any tribulations that he may have been facing. Furthermore, the chemistry between Charlie and the principal’s daughter, played by Kat Dennings (you might recognize her as the daughter in The 40 Year Old Virgin), was extremely uninspired, as their pairing seemed forced and was only there to serve as a plot device.
What saves this film is Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. He portrayed his layered character almost perfectly and actually gave some credence to conflict between the principal and Charlie. Robert Downey Jr., experienced in the ways of alcoholism, brought this knowledge to the movie, creating a realistic and genuine character. Additionally, Tyler Hilton’s depiction of the school bully was somewhat authentic, and his character successfully simultaneously appeared both likeable and despicable while providing a few comedic moments in the film. However, while Murphey’s final transformation towards the end of the movie was trite and clichéd, this problem was largely due to the writing rather than any error in the actor’s performance.
Although the film’s script was somewhat honest in its portrayal of high school life (it doesn’t shy away from bad language and teenage sex), the difference in the effectiveness of the dialogue can mainly be attributed to variations in the caliber of acting. Also, for a film that is labeled as a teen comedy, the number of times that I laughed could disappointingly be counted on one hand. The catalyst for conflict in the movie lacked spontaneity, leading to a predictable ending that resolved things a little too easily. For a first full-length screenplay, the writer (Gustin Nash) has shown some promise, and hopefully he will improve upon some of these aspects in his next film. The director, Jon Poll, gives ample screen time to each character, and while none of the shots feel particularly unique, they are convincing in their representation of the events taking place on screen.
Another Juno this movie is not, and while Charlie Bartlett tries to accomplish lofty goals by supposedly exposing the troubled lives of middle class teenagers, it largely fails as it succumbs to a contrived plot with few original ideas.