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If Ferris Bueller had gone to class or if Rushmore’s Max Fischer included doctor-shopping among his extracurricular activities, they might have turned out a whole lot like Charlie Bartlett. It’s impossible to watch the titular character of director Jon Poll’s feature debut without recalling those nerds-of-the-people who’ve gone before him. Another decade, another atypical-and-yet-attractive teen hero, another message about the importance of being true to yourself.
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Of the two films, the occasionally entertaining and well-intentioned Charlie Bartlett apes Rushmore most closely. When Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is tossed out of yet another private academy for selling fake IDs, his wealthy, dippy mother (Hope Davis) enrolls him in a public school. He insists on taking the bus instead of employing the family driver on his first day but still wears a suit, never considering that this uniform might keep him from achieving his goal of rock-star popularity. (In the opening scene, Charlie fantasizes about an arena-size crowd chanting his name.) Naturally, he’s mocked by the masses and beaten up by Murphy (Tyler Hilton), a thug who takes offense to his briefcase. “Actually, I believe it’s an attaché case,” Charlie tells him. And naturally, Charlie finds a way to win them all over, but not without acquiring a nemesis: Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) is a formerly happy history teacher and currently self-loathing alcoholic who keeps an eye on Charlie, though he’s less concerned that he’ll violate school rules than his foxy daughter, Susan (Kat Dennings).
In his first feature script, Gustin Nash wedges a lecture about prescription-drug abuse within the genre’s usual it’s-OK-to-be-different message. Charlie’s ah-ha moment comes after his mother immediately sends him to a psychiatrist (whom she, a Klonopin-popper herself, has on call) after his unsuccessful debut at school. The doc doesn’t hesitate to prescribe Ritalin. And after Charlie discovers for himself what a few of those babies can do—suddenly he can’t stop studying, cleaning, or running outside in his tightie-whities—he decides to sell the pills at a dance. Instantly, girls are running topless and boys are wrecking and rioting. The next day Charlie is treated like a champion—albeit one the students assume could get more drugs. So he starts a bathroom-stall psych service, listening to kids’ problems and then rattling off each of their symptoms as his own to every knee-jerk prescriber in town.
Charlie Bartlett’s initial fun at the expense of the uncontrolled use of controlled substances can be off-putting depending on your mind-set and tolerance of exaggeration for the purpose of satire. Obviously, the main side effect of a dose of Ritalin isn’t tearing your clothes off. And it’s supposed to be touching when Charlie tells Kip (Mark Rendall), a truly depressed misfit who doesn’t have a friend in the world, that according to his research, no one has ever died from a panic attack. But then he soothes Kip with pills, which have obviously killed plenty. Nash’s script does eventually address overdose—though only by downing a bottle, not the lesser-known and therefore arguably greater danger of mixing the wrong prescriptions at the wrong time—but it feels like too little, too late after all the junior-psychiatrist yuks.
The film is more successful, ironically, when it sticks to tried-and-truisms. Charlie hears some heartbreaking stories: the quarterback who’s sick over the fact that he secretly can’t stand football, for example, or the cheerleader who’s afraid to say no to horndogs. Even the clichéd daddy-letting-go-of-his-daughter struggle feels genuine here, mainly because Nash doesn’t let things get too sugary. (When Gardner all but calls Susan a slut in his misguided attempt to have a conversation about not letting boys take advantage of her, it’s shocking but realistic.) The cast, too, helps elevate the movie above standard teen fare. You may find Yelchin’s wide-eyed Ferris impression annoying, but his Charlie is earnest and exuberant, believable as a natural leader despite his quirks. Charlie’s mother, too, isn’t terribly likable, but Davis’ breathy, space-cadet portrayal is exactly what you’d expect from a perpetually altered lady of leisure. Downey Jr. isn’t showy here, but anyone who knows his history will wince at a scene in which Gardner bottoms out. Like Charlie’s classmates, you’ll likely be skeptical when the film introduces itself—and then surprised when you’re won over by its small charms.