In my monthly need to leave out of the house in the hopes of stumbling into a worthwhile book, movie or real person, I might have shot too high in hoping Charlie Bartlett would be somehow an uplifting event or cinematically memorable. I also figured with Robert Downey Jr. in the cast, I could expect something to catch my eye. Well, it did, and didn’t.
It starts with a typical fantasy-to-reality check in Charlie’s last school of privilege. His mother (Hope Davis) is a completely unconcerned parent as she just goes along with her bright high school boy’s antics, while using alcohol and meds to get through her husband’s incarceration for tax evasion. (But they are still wealthy…)
After another typical 1st day-at-school lesson, Charlie adapts quickly, uses his considerable charms, wits for high schooler and entrepeurial nack to gain popularity, first with the school bully, and soon the entire high school.
What Charlie (Anton Yelchin) offers is instant advice and ‘meds’, which come via his own instant access to psychiatrists, who are in turn prescribing various medications to Charlie like a preacher does The Bible to ‘The Sinner.’ In one fairly funny montage, Charlie shows the dangers of what these professionals often engage in (by poking fun at it), and foreshadows bad things to come…
The kids are more adult usually, than all the adults are combined. They are looking for answers via Charlie, or acknowledge quickly their shortcomings and problems. The adult characters hide behind various mechanisms instead of facing their issues. Charlie buts heads with the Principal (Downey) while, of course, wooing the principal’s daughter in an all-too-honest way.
The reason this movie often falls short is that it goes too far in pushing the “instant transformation” idea without “teaching lessons” in a high school/coming-of-age movie. In fact, you don’t really see the kids in a ‘normal’ school setting at all – and the problems are far more mature (not always) than what I believe some high schoolers would be talking about. Teachers and parents of kids don’t exist. Only the principal – a quasi-authority figure since his job is in jeopardy.
There are too many of these instant transformations, no struggles or conflicts in achieving success, which would naturally be apart of a real alteration. I think the movie actually could have used 30-35 minutes extra (1hr 37 minutes) to fill in gaps in story lines and take a dramedy to a higher plane of existence. (Flush out the other story lines: the panic attack kid, mentally challenged guy, the dealer, the cheerleader, classroom interaction, parents, etc.)
It works, and it doesn’t. Maybe if it would have taken some scholastic clues from Gross Anatomy, another dramedy that reflects on medical school via the eyes of a could-care-less fisherman’s son with C grades, as an undergrad (but perfect MCATs) turned 1st-year med student that has to deal with his classmate’s desires, his professor’s critiques and his own willingness “to do the work.”
Though different movies, the med school detail as Roger Ebert noted was flawless and built tension throughout the movie. Bartlett lacked tension.
I remember watching Gross Anatomy as a 16-year old who had just got a 3-day suspension from high school for telling the Dean of Students to “Fuck Off.” My mother was at work, so I took off to the theatre and the mall.
I was in many respects like a Charlie Bartlett (watch the movie to understand): disrespectful of authority, assisting my mother too much (I worked from age 13 through high school approximately 25 hours per week) and sometimes too much of an adult, but still a child.
I think all of us can relate to Bartlett; but I think the movie had more – just needed a gentle push.