At the beginning of Charlie Bartlett, the 17-year-old titular hero (Anton Yelchin) fantasizes about standing on a stage in front of an enormous crowd of hysterically worshipful teens. One immediately senses that Charlie really is special and that his dream of popularity will come true somehow. The how makes this a wonderful iteration of the adolescent coming-of-age movie.
Cut to Charlie being expelled from a hoity-toity prep school for running a fake ID service. Harold and Maude springs to mind when the camera alights on his moneyed and blithely out-of-touch mother (Hope Davis). Although the two plots don’t overlap significantly, the connection is cemented later with the Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam ditty “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”—we’re headed into territory where mordancy meets feel-good humor, and it’s a fun journey.
Enrolling at the local public school Western Summit, Charlie knows it would be unwise to arrive in the family limo but wears his crested blue blazer unselfconsciously and signs up for theatre auditions with a Mont Blanc pen. His path to becoming well liked is rocky at first, but he soon paves it with the myriad of pharmaceuticals prescribed for him by gullible shrinks, which he turns around and sells to fellow students in the boys’ lavatory. Clever Charlie also has a line in talk therapy, listening to kids’ problems and offering helpful advice. (Oh, and he also plays a mean jazz piano.) Dispensing drugs brings peer adulation for Charlie as well as the attention of beleaguered Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), with whom he tangles in some hilarious scenes. Thankfully, Charlie’s love interest is not a sprightly septuagenarian like Maude but a semi-Goth classmate who happens to be Gardner’s daughter (Kat Dennings).
About halfway through you hear the strains of an acoustic guitar, and your heart drops. This code for “serious stuff is about to go down” indeed signals a shift toward more conventional teen romance and tribulation. Inevitable perhaps, yet the electric Charlie Bartlett doesn’t turn sentimental, as, incidentally, many feel Harold and Maude does. Jon Poll’s terrific directorial debut—from a snarky-and-sweet script by Gustin Nash—has too much charisma to be a banal high-school melodrama. Charlie is an original, a fresh pied piper who deserves to be followed and cheered.
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, Kat Dennings, Robert Downey Jr., Tyler Hilton, Mark Rendall and Dylan Taylor
Director: Jon Poll
Screenwriter: Gustin Nash
Producers: David Permut, Barron Kidd, Jay Roach and Sidney Kimmel
Rating: R for language, drug content and brief nudity
Running time: 97 min.
Release date: February 22