February 28, 2008

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Charlie Bartlett (R)
A teenage misfit achieves his dream of popularity thanks to an understanding nature and an ability to get psychiatric drugs in Charlie Bartlett, a sweet high school fantasy with a remember-the-1980s quality.

The Breakfast Club-ish? Better Off Dead-esque? Ferris Bueller-y? Somewhere in there you have the tone of this movie.

In addition to being one of those movie/TV kids always referred to by their first and last name (e.g. Veronica Mars), Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is a teen talented at getting kicked out of private schools. After being booted from his most recent school (where he gained friends by running a successful fake ID business), his mom (Hope Davis) picks him up in the chauffeured family car and informs him that he’ll have to give public high school a try. Naturally for a kid who wears a blazer and carries an attaché case to a public high school, Charlie’s first day is a tough one (he gets beat up) and his mom calls the family’s therapist, who gives him Ritalin. The Ritalin makes him crazy (he’s picked up by a local police officer who finds him nearly naked and yelling in driveways in the middle of the night) but it teaches him that this prescription drug is good for getting crazy high. He returns to school, finds the bully (Tyler Hilton) who beat him up and gets the bully to become his business partner in pharmaceutical sales. Soon, however, Charlie finds that it’s not just the drugs the kids want, it’s also someone to listen to them and give them advice. By going to a bunch of therapists and aping the symptoms of his young clients, Charlie is able to get drugs and diagnoses and soon finds himself the go-to guy for kids needing some time on the couch (or, as it were, in the bathroom stall).

Charlie’s freakish popularity worries the school’s principal (Robert Downey Jr.), who is himself a drinker due to the enormous suckitude of his much-hated job. He isn’t sure what Charlie’s deal is but he knows it can’t be good, especially when it comes to Charlie’s interest in his daughter, the dark-haired Susan (Kat Dennings).

For all that Charlie and his fellow students/patients are miserable at school, Downey’s character is by far the most miserable. Coupled with Davis’ character’s depression (masked by a delightful upper-crusty ditziness), Downey’s sad dad is probably part of what really got me to like this movie — there is no promise of life getting better post high school. Add in a sarcastic daughter, the delightfully nerdy Charlie and the idea that enemies across cliques can become allies in illegal business and you have a charming fairy tale of what life in high school was never like but, could adults go back and rewrite it, might have been.

The performances here support the fantastical conceit. Nobody is so good you think they’re showing you an actual person but no one falls back into caricature either. Yelchin is no John Cusack but he does alright; he never lets the character get too hip or too winky.

Charlie Bartlett isn’t going for the realism of, say, Juno but of a whimsical picture of teendom wherein students might actually be made to believe that they’re not alone in their personal craziness or that they don’t need somebody else to tell them who they are. I wasn’t a girl with bright red lipstick and a good singing voice or a kid who overcame depression to write a play but I wish I could have been. And as unreal as those two characters (not to mention the entrepreneurial, rock-star-ish Charlie) are there’s something about them that seems more real than, for example, the overly lip-glossed teens of The O.C. or the boozy kids of Gossip Girl. Perhaps it’s because the movie lets them seem young and stupid even as they act and talk wise beyond their years. B

Rated R for language, drug content and brief nudity. Directed by Jon Poll and written by Gustin Nash, Charlie Bartlett is an hour and 37 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by MGM.