The teen rebel is a staple of cinema, and every generation seems to have their own big screen spokesman. "Charlie Bartlett" is applying for this exalted position, and I could see the film appealing to the target demographic on the strength of its messages, but certainly not in the filmmaking presented.
Expelled from a private institution, Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is off to public school, where his privileged ways are immediately rebuffed by his classmates. Searching for popularity, Charlie begins to manipulate his psychiatrists to get his hands on ADD and anxiety drugs, which he then sells to his classmates. An immediate hit, Charlie soon becomes an ear for his school, with his peers coming to the makeshift analyst to help solve their problems. It also engages the attentions of Susan (Kat Dennings), the daughter of the principal (Robert Downey Jr.) who knows what Charlie is capable of and wants nothing to do with him.
It turns out the kids just want someone to talk to. "Charlie Bartlett" is an extended riff on disenfranchised, isolated youth embracing their disobedient savior. You've seen the film before, only now the topical twist is the overmedication of teens and how it stymies emotional growth. "Bartlett" is a dark comedy, but I couldn't sense any stable tone from Gustin Nash's screenplay. The writer is stuck between abrasive, snarky characters who clown around in established youth vs. adult archetypes and a yearning to address abandonment issues, which leads to internal teen combustion and the occasional suicide attempt. It's a bumpy ride trying to navigate the plot, and the more it pogos, the more distancing and strained it becomes.
Buying Charlie as a nuanced protagonist is a major effort, due in great part to Yelchin's misplaced energy and abrasive loyalty to performance indication. Director Jon Poll gives the actor great leeway; as though there's this curly-haired bubble of charm standing in front of the camera, and his every move is gold. Charlie comes across as a monster; a smarmy manipulator, not a friend to the students he services with pills and heartfelt bathroom stall talks. He's no Ferris Bueller, though Poll pushes urgently to turn the character into a lighthearted hepcat messiah. The script softens his blows by introducing Susan as a romantic entanglement that warms Charlie up, however this results in one of the creepier deflowering scenes in recent memory.
Is the audience supposed to feel bad for Charlie? Embrace his rebel yell? Sympathize with his familial pain? Poll leaves interpretation in the hands of the viewer, but forgets to include a reason to care.
More interesting is the story of Principal Gardner, sharply played by Downey in a fashion that's rich with gentle shadings of responses and invites emotional interpretation. Downey doesn't have much to do in "Bartlett," but his underplayed performance of frustration and hopeless fatherhood control is the film's only output of humanity.
"Charlie Bartlett" has plenty on its mind about today's prescription-pounded youth, but its clouded execution and miscasting neuters the intended objective the film has to brand the character a clear-thinking leader of the pack. Charlie Bartlett is not a hero; he deserves a spanking.
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