It’s strangely ironic that, in just yesterday’s review, I was ruing the absence of decent teen films, specifically the dearth of teen dramedies that thematically grabbed onto the Pump Up the Volume baton; ironic because Charlie Bartlett is the best approximation of that film to come through the multiplex since Hard-On Harry talked his way to the big house. In fact, first-time screenwriter Gustin Nash (who will write the Youth in Revolt script next) should probably even pony up a percentage of his take to Allan Moyle. Not that I’m complaining, mind you — you could do a lot worse than rip off the film that was not only the coup de grace of the John Hughes era, but a film that introduced an entire generation of teenagers to Lenny Bruce (show of hands: How many folks ran out and bought How To Talk Dirty and Influence People after watching Volume? And how many people used “Wienerschnitzel” as their answering machine message? Just me, then?)
Indeed, Bartlett may as well be an unofficial remake: Exchange Hard On Harry for Bartlett, pirate radio for pharmaceuticals and therapy, and Samantha Mathis for Kat Dennings, and you’ve got extremely similar films, though Bartlett does throw in a few Rushmore nods and an alterna-Harold and Maude musical vibe, which probably makes it even more appealing to adults than teenagers, who are likely too busy text-speaking and recycling to bother rising up against the administration in the school cafeteria (query me this, tweeners: Just how much of your identity iswrapped up in your ringtone these days?)
In Bartlett, Charlie is a kid who doesn’t realize he’s not an adult because his mother (Hope Davis) has treated him as one since Charlie’s dad went to prison. Charlie, meanwhile, has been kicked out of a series of private schools and finally forced to into a public one, where, honestly, he just wants to be liked. Trouble is, a decent understanding of literature and a modicum of intelligence elicits a beat down in public school (nice to know nothing changes), and Charlie becomes the victim of bully tyrants who don’t like the Latin emblem on his jacket. So, Charlie — who has been misdiagnosed with ADD — subdues his tormenter, Murphy (Tyler Hilton) with some pyschobabble and convinces him to be his business partner in a pharmaceutical business: Charlie diagnoses his classmates in the boys’ restroom, mimics the symptoms for various shrinks around town, and sells the drugs to his peers. Before long, Charlie’s drugs and therapy skills earn him Ferris Bueller status, as well as the title “boyfriend to the principal’s daughter (Dennings).” The principal (Robert Downey), meanwhile, is a pushover drunk; a sympathetic authoritarian, but an authoritarian all the same. Principal Grant encourages Charlie to do right by his popularity, while also warning him away from his daughter. Alas, things go swimmingly for Charlie until a student attempts to overdose on Charlie’s prescribed pills (see the Volume parallels?) and his Charlie-empowered classmates rise up against the administration’s decision to install video cameras in the school.
Granted, Charlie Bartlett’s storyline is as conventional as its Hughesian forbearers, but it’s significantly less glossy — there’s a certain indie aesthetic to Charlie that, sadly, will likely turn away a lot of its intended audience, who’d probably prefer to see Briana Evigan’s abdominal muscles or Taylor Kitch’s pecs (not that I can talk; there was a lot to be said for Samantha Mathis’ “Everybody Knows” scene in Volume).
But while Charlie isn’t nearly as good as a film likeJuno, it does have considerably more authenticity: No one tries, for instance, to impress you with quirky dialogue or hamburger phones, and Nash and director Jon Poll do a commendable job of capturing the insecurities of high school without turning those insecure kids into loser caricatures (there is, however, a mentally-challenged kid who has no business in the film). And while it lacks much in the way of inventiveness and originality, teenage audiences who haven’t been schooled in Molly Ringwald’s oeuvre won’t know it, while older audiences will appreciate the throwback vibe. But what everyone can appreciate is how great Anton Yelchin is (he’s, like, the next
Justin Long Matthew Broderick), as well as the presence of Robert Downey who, as always, is fucking brilliant in what I believe is his first father role. If Charlie Bartlett is any indication, when Downey decides to start selling out to family films, Steve Martin will have an appropriate successor.
What’s most refreshing about this film, however, is that while most teenage pics glorify status and center largely on the unpopular kid gaining his or her popularity via makeover, revenge, or fuck, Charlie Bartlett is less about becoming popular and more about what to do with that popularity once you achieve it.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Charlie Bartlett / Dustin Rowles
Film | February 21, 2008 | Comments ()