Incredible! One of the worst performances of my career and they never doubted it for a second.
— Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick)
Angry at his absent father and alcoholic mother, the titular hero of Charlie Bartlett looks for ways to act out. This much is clear from an opening dreamy scene in which young Charlie (Anton Yelchin) appears on a literal stage, wearing a tie, jacket, and black Chucks, inveterately cool and acknowledging applause and adulation from a crowd just beyond the footlights. “Thank you!” Charlie yells out, a rock star in his own mind. And then, yes, the moment is ended: Charlie’s summoned to the dean’s office.
A wholly familiar means to grant access to a character’s thoughts — in this case, despair and delusion — such literalizing imagery is hardly an auspicious start. Still, Charlie Bartlett persists, plodding from one prosaism to another. Yes, Charlie’s going to be expelled from his prep school (and yes, it’s only the latest in such expulsions), this time for forging IDs, an offense that is unsurprisingly thematic, as poor Charlie is indeed performing and seeking an “identity.” Riding home in the limo with his mother Marilyn (Hope Davis), he’s disinclined to feel responsible or contrite. The routine is laid out in their conversation: “It’s not like you needed the money,” worries Marilyn, missing the point. And so her son underlines what’s important to him: “They were just starting to appreciate me,” he whines, just before she cuts him off: “There’s more to high school than being well liked.”
It seems that she’s never seen a high school movie, and more specifically, she’s missed this one’s most obvious precursor, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. This leaves mom at a disadvantage, as does her fondness for whine and nostalgia for her adolescence, when she was dropping acid and indulging in various sexual explorations. Charlie’s got more limits, despite his money, as becomes clear when mom shuttles him off to the shrink-with-couch-and-notepad, who barely listens to him before prescribing Ritalin.
In fact, this prescription will prove a useful foundation for Charlie’s next social venture, at a public school. On his arrival, Charlie learns the natives are restless, owing to the installation of surveillance cameras in the student lounge (another seemingly topical allusion the movie drops in without much context or attention to effects). It’s soon clear that Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), depressed and prone to drinking, is grasping at proverbial straws, desperate to curtail his students’ bad behaviors and not much invested in considering causes or providing alternative activities. This is where Charlie comes in, of course, as he seeks again to “fit in,” and even better, to be popular. Among the plebes at public school, his smartness and even better, his smart-assness, make him look like a veritable genius, and yes, cool.
Charlie’s channeling of his gifts this time takes the form of “counseling,” modeled on the sort of relationship he knows all too well. When one day he finds himself in a bathroom stall next to a miserable and helpfully articulate peer (“I have trouble breathing in class, it feels like a heart attack”). Charlie listens then begins dispensing advice, his role as analyst enhanced when he figures out he can also offer drugs, repurposing his own medications (Xanax, Prozac, Zoloft), which he disdains anyway. His gambit pays off: soon kids are lining up outside the boys’ room, seeking pearls of wisdom and more to the point, escape — just like the adults.
Charlie’s new happiness is only enhanced by his friendships with the school bully, Murphey (Tyler Hilton) as well as his most enthusiastic “client,” Kip (Mark Rendall). While the motivation for Kip’s devotion is plain, the route to Murphey’s heart is slightly more convoluted, initiated when the big meanie beats him down in the hallway and another student tapes it. When he sees the recording is a big hit with other students, Charlie devises a scheme to profit, such that he and Murphey begin making fight tapes and selling them on DVD. When the superintendent gets wind of the enterprise (“This may be the most disgusting thing I’ve seen at this school”), Charlie’s rep is only improved.
Buoyed by the reverence, Charlie gets up the nerve to approach Gardner’s beautiful, rebel-ready daughter Susan (Kat Dennings). She thinks he’s cute, and soon they’re sharing sad stories about their inept, missing, and self-medicating parents (“It kind of sucks having one parent ditch and the other one lose their mind,” muses Charlie, as Susan nods, “How can I possibly turn out to be even remotely functional?”), finding solace with one another. (Charlie’s quest to lose his virginity fits in here, leading to one more literalization of his hackneyed rock star fantasy.)
Yet another movie-styled, smirking white boy high-schooler, Charlie is surely clever, but also derivative. Even as he takes his search for identity-family-community-popularity to topical extremes, Charlie’s not breaking any ground. While particular moments in the film resonate with a weird (see especially scenes featuring Downey, who brings a perfect pitch of fatigue, frustration, and hope). “Being zoned out of our mind is a lot easier than dealing with your problems,” offers Gardner. Too true. As Charlie learns his own limits and the value of “being himself,” his movie turns increasingly humdrum.