Directed: Jon Poll
Writer: Gustin Nash
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis
Tagline: “Popularity is a state of mind”
Trivia: Charlie’s limo is a classic 1969 Mercedes-Benz Pullman, one of only two hundred ever built.
I’m not a big fan of high schools comedies. Maybe it’s because high school is still a nightmare for me, even after 40+ years, or maybe because it feels immature (it’s high school for crying out loud) and in most cases a waste of my time.
However, there are some exceptions whereby they managed to change the conversation from the high school into a thematic one. Movies like Juno, Easy A and Rushmore can stand the test of time and have attraction for grown up audience even though the setting is high school.
Charlie Bartlett is no Juno (though was released at the same year) or any of the other movies mentioned above, but has certainly managed to pull itself above the murky waters of high school comedies by focusing on an issue which is beyond adolescence.
Expelled from private school, amiable misfit Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is placed in the public system. His privileged background sets him apart until he finds a bond with the other kids – including the disillusioned headmaster’s (Downey Jr.) daughter (Kat Dennings).
The main question of the movie is, “Maybe there’s more to high school than being well liked,” Charley Bartlett’s mother (Hope Davis) says. “Like what, specifically?” Charley asks. She thinks for a second. “Nothing comes to me.” This is a question many of us have struggled with – how much are we willing to give up for being popular/loved and still maintain who we are.
Despite his life of privilege, Charley doesn’t have the things he really wants – the things every teenager wants – security and popularity (sounds familiar?)
He (quite literally) dreams of standing before crowds of adoring peers, and operates crafty, yet daft, schemes to win their approval – schemes which have resulted in his systematic expulsion from every private school in the area.
Director Jon Poll and writer Gustin Nash must be fans of the snarky teen comedy genre, because Charlie Bartlett has been clearly influenced by cult classics such as Rushmore, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and even Harold and Maude. But with it’s given satirical bent, snarky dialogue and stereotype-defying characters you are mostly reminded of Juno
It’s the same “school is boring, speak out for your rights” shtick that we’ve heard a dozen times before, but Nash presents the material in a way that doesn’t feel quite as stale as it probably should.
In fact, without the film’s many great performances to keep the story grounded, it’s very likely that Charlie Bartlett would have suffered a completely different fate.
Hope Davis is playing Charley’s eccentric mother in a role that could have gone spectacularly wrong, but becomes a marvel of subtle comedy in her capable hands.
Anton Yelchin plays Charlie with just the right endearing quality, undercut by a skilfully individualistic style and Robert Downy Jr. is as reliable as ever to give a fantastic performance no matter how big or small the role is.
Charlie Bartlett is at its most interesting when it challenges the boundaries of good behavior; measuring Charlie’s desire for acceptance against the dangers of, say, selling prescription drugs to his classmates.
Of course, your enjoyment of these scenes may well depend on your politics, but there’s no denying that watching Charlie have an adverse reaction to a dose of Ritalin is highly amusing.
It’s unfortunate that Poll doesn’t push his characters further into such promising territory. The good work unravels when conflicts begin to be resolved by forced, convenient screenwriting.
A horrible sense of ’happy ending syndrome’ kicks in, and with it any hopes of Poll creating something outstanding disappears. It means that a good film falls short – considerably, in the end – of greatness.
There are plenty of good qualities in Charlie; it just needed to apply itself a little more.
Verdict – 3/5 Stars in my book