Unconventional teen dramedies have gained a new level of Hollywood cachet, with most recent thanks to the Oscar-nominated Juno. Highbrow humor infused with adolescence feels bankable right now--witness 2007's cult hit Superbad--and so attempts to place young adults in more sophisticated plot lines are in vogue. Such is the case with director Jon Poll's Charlie Bartlett.
The man character is the titular Charlie Bartlett, aptly portrayed by 18-year-old Anton Yelchin. Charlie is a privileged high-school student with a penchant for finding trouble wherever he sets foot--he has been expelled from nearly every school he has ever attended. He looks every bit the part of the classic American high-school trickster--the scrawny preppy that is the unlikely love child of Ferris Bueller and Zack Morris--armed with an arsenal of quips and adulating peers. But Charlie has at his disposal what neither of the aforementioned possessed: access to pharmaceutical drugs.
Already indelibly charming, Charlie positions himself as Western Summit High's resident psychiatrist, writing prescriptions and lending his ear to a school filled to the brim with angst-ridden, self-doubting youngsters. As Charlie discovers from his own interactions with certified psychiatrists, the message we promote may be "Don't do drugs," but what we really say is "Don't do illicit drugs"--mind-altering anti-depressants and behavioral modification medications are something else entirely.
Charlie's popularity rises along with his newfound position within his school's social hierarchy--and he finally finds his niche. After all, as Charlie deftly notes: "I'm 17 and popularity is pretty damn important to me."
Of course, Charlie must contend with the expected bevy of obstacles, even if they're more creatively packaged here than in like-minded movies: His mother, Marilyn (Hope Davis), is less an authoritative figure than she is a facilitator of Charlie's self-damaging antics; his father is imprisoned for tax evasion; and, as his mother puts it, Charlie must face down a "whole battery of psychological problems that will plague [him] for life." None of these personal problems accounts for the school principal (Robert Downey, Jr.) trying to bring him down--one of the movie's few clichés.
Most of the movie focuses on the kids, and Charlie Bartlett is populated with strong performances by its young cast. Only Downey's principal has a significant adult role; Davis' Marilyn is buried by the plot, perhaps indicative of her transparent parenting. Kat Dennings is a capable performer as Charlie's love interest, Susan, while Tyler Hilton's Murphey is a solid Robin to Charlie's Batman. And like the students at Western Summit High, Charlie Bartlett is promising if a bit immature, and--like its teen dramedy kin--underdeveloped for the plaudits they have thus far received.