Although cheerful, friendly, intelligent, well-dressed, authentic and wealthy, Charlie Bartlett has problems. With his father gone and his mother loopy and clueless, he's been expelled from every private school for his victimless crimes. Now he's in a public school getting punched out daily by the school thug. He ever longs to be popular - the go-to guy - and the true crux of his troubles is that he invariably finds the means to this end, whatever that might be. At Western Summit High, he makes peace with his tormentor by going into business with him - listening to kids' problems and selling them prescription drugs. Charlie's a hit, but attraction to Susan (daughter of the school's laissez-faire principal), new security cameras on campus, a student's overdose, and Charlie's open world view all converge to get him in serious trouble. Can this self-made physician possibly heal himself and just be a kid? Written by
Charlie Bartlett is a comedy with a message. Some may say that's an oxymoron. But Jon Poll, directing from a Gustin Nash script, takes on the task and turns in a hybrid of a film that is so incredibly engaging you'll wonder why few filmmakers take on such a challenge. The audience was so loud and boisterous at the World Premiere screening at the Tribeca Film Festival that it sent the laugh meter off the scale.
Anton Yelchin is Charlie Bartlett, a kid born with a silver spoon in his mouth and an enterprising, albeit mischievous, brain. His antics get him kicked out of one private school after another. But his clever and earnest sincerity is bound to hit the target sooner or later and it does when he is thrown to the public school wolves. The scheme he invents to endear himself to the student body is nothing short of genius, and his performance fits the bill.
Yelchin has made a name for himself playing the smart, sensitive, and innocent tortured kid. Here he gets the chance to stretch his acting chops in a completely different direction. He's confident and anything but vulnerable. The wide range of emotions and the talents he shows here are unsurpassed. He sings, he dances, he plays piano, he does physical comedy and has fight scenes and romantic scenes and just about everything that could be thrown at him. And he looks to be so thoroughly enjoying it, which comes across on screen and proves to be so central to the film. After all, to enjoy a film one must identify somewhat with the protagonist, or at least like him, and Anton does that better than many actors twice his age.
Hope Davis is a riot as his not-quite-all-there mother. It's easy to see the source of Charlie's quirkiness. The relationship between mother and son is playful and mischievous, the kind of "mom as best friend" scenario which often results in tragedy. Here it's played just for laughs, and it works. She is everymom - with a twist of lemon.
Tyler Hilton is perfectly cast as the bully who we know from the start is destined to soften up somewhere along the way. That's what movie bullies do. But he brings an especially charming quality to the role which plays perfectly against Charlie's leanings toward the dark side. It's a delicate balance but Yelchin and Hilton make it work.
Robert Downey Jr. is ironically cast as the substance-addled principal who also happens to be the father of Charlie's love interest. One has to wonder whether Principal Gardner or Downey is speaking in some of the more poignant scenes about alcohol and drugs. It's chilling. Perhaps for that reason alone he is a standout here.
Kat Dennings plays the girl who is out to win Charlie's heart. The dynamic with Downey and Yelchin is a natural source of drama. This is the film's most heartfelt storyline, and Dennings is admirably up to the task.
At times it all feels so real, and it's no wonder -- writer Gustin Nash actually continued to write scenes and dialogue specifically for those actors after the film got underway and it shows.
Charlie Bartlett has the look and feel of a studio film, which should help it find an audience. The subject matter demands an R rating, if only for its content. But it's a film kids need to see. The message is squarely aimed at teens, even younger ones, and parents need to take heed. In the guise of a comedy, a good one at that, Charlie Bartlett has something meaningful to say about the excuses we use to justify our behavior and the chemical coping methods so many of us cling to. And it's d*mn funny.
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