These days, it's rare to find an R-rated teenage comedy that doesn't bombard you with tons of gratuitous nudity, raunchy foul language and a couple of characters who will go to great lengths just to get laid. While some might consider that a bad thing, I happen to find it quite refreshing. Due out in theaters this August, Charlie Bartlett enjoyed its world premiere this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Here's a film that carries a heavy message about the mis-use of prescription medication amongst today's teens, but does so in a very clever (and fun) way. You'd have to be living in a cave to not be aware of some of the issues currently circling the halls of our high schools. We live in a society where it's easier to hand a child medication then it is to sit down at the dinner table and have a conversation. A lot of parents are too busy, too self-absorbed to really talk to their kids. Thus, when something goes wrong, they've been trained to go to a professional. Johnny's having a hard time paying attention in class? Okay, well here's some Ritalin. Mary's been crying a lot in her room? Fine, give her some Zoloft. Zack can't sleep at night? Wonderful, try a bunch of this Xanax.
It's not that these pills are wrong; some of them actually do help kids remain healthy in a world that's evolving faster than you can text your vote to American Idol. The real problem lies with those who use these medications for recreational purposes. When I was in college, kids would take three pills of Ritalin, chop them up and snort them. And no, they weren't prescribed the pills -- they bought them from the kid who would rather make a few bucks than take some crummy pill he didn't feel he needed in the first place. Enter: Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin); a smart, sharp-looking kid who's been kicked out of every private school he's attended for scheming his way into the pockets of his fellow students. When we first meet him, he's getting the boot from yet another school because, this time, he's found a way to create near-perfect fake I.D.s. With nowhere else to send him, his filthy rich (and heavily medicated) mother (Hope Davis) decides it's time to enroll Charlie in public school. And while it takes some time for Charlie's suit-and-tie attitude to rub off on his peers, it's not long before this modern-day Ferris Bueller finds the attention he so desperately craves.
Charlie quickly learns that the key to popularity lies in giving something back to the students. No, this doesn't involve running for student council president; in this case, it's becoming the guy who gets you high. Since Charlie's mother is too wasted to solve problems herself (and his father doesn't appear to be in the picture, for reasons that are revealed later on), she sends her son to the next best thing: a psychiatrist. It's there that Charlie learns how to manipulate his way to the right medication; pills he then uses to sell to a group of students looking for a good time. That is until Charlie realizes these kids need more than a carefully prescribed dose of drugs; they need someone who will listen. They need a friendly ear, someone who's not going to judge them for feeling different. Thus, Charlie sets up a make-shift psychiatrist's office in the school's bathroom, hires the school's bully to be his assistant and begins to offer free counseling. In the meantime, he reads up on psychology and, when a student comes to him with a certain problem, he knows exactly what to say to, what has now become, an assortment of psychiatrists.
With everything going so well, the only thing standing in Charlie's way is Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.); a reformed alcoholic (one that still enjoys an occasional drink) who is not only on to Charlie's game, but also can't stand the fact that Charlie is dating his daughter Susan (Kat Dennings). In his mind, he sees Charlie as a guy who is only out to sleep with the Principal's daughter, like she's part of some ridiculous high school scavenger hunt. Eventually, Charlie's side business becomes uncontrollable, with kids lining up in the hallways and Principal Gardner (who's battling his own post-addiction demons) out to rid his school of Charlie Bartlett once and for all. Though this is a more low key role for Downey Jr., it's one that hits home for him, being a one-time addict and all. Toward the end of the film, he and Yelchin (who proves here that he's definitely an actor to watch out for) face off in a dramatic confrontation that had to be tough for a man whose past actions were eerily similar to that of the character he's playing on screen.
Having edited a number of hit comedies (Meet the Parents, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), as well as served as executive producer on stuff like The 40 Year Old Virgin, Charlie Bartlett marks Jon Poll's directorial debut. Poll certainly knows how to bring the funny, but the film still ends up feeling a bit too tame ... even though it is rated R. In order to buy into the idea that a kid like Charlie is actually able to pull off a stunt like this -- in between classes with no other teachers noticing -- the audience definitely needs to suspend their disbelief. Sure, the drug epidemic in today's high schools is very much a reality, but the film's reality does come off as a bit too movie fake, especially during the party scenes. And trust me, you'll know when those arrive. That said, Poll and his cast do succeed in sending across a clear and distinct message; one that both parents and teens should listen to. Prescribing a child medication like Zoloft or Ritalin should be a last resort. And, if it does come to that, then parents should monitor their kids closely, keeping the medication from their children until it's time for their daily dose. Teens will go to great lengths these days to fit in, to feel excepted. Attention and popularity are their drug of choice. If anything, Charlie Bartlett shows how easy it is for these kids to succumb to the everyday pressures of life -- but, at the same time, how a simple conversation between a parent and a child at the end of a long school day could go a long way to making a difference in that child's life. You have the map, and all they need are the directions.