Charlie Bartlett is Juno's dorkier, needier cousin, the one who's watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off too many times. Am I talking about the teenage title characters or the films themselves? Both, to a certain extent. Charlie Bartlett is a standard coming-of-age comedy with some amusing quirks, but as with Juno, I found myself enjoying the company of the older characters in the film far more than the teen leads.
Poor little rich kid Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) wants nothing more than to see all his high-school peers look up to him. So he does crazy dumb things that get him kicked out of a progression of private schools, like making amazingly realistic fake IDs. As a result, his dippy but sweet mom (Hope Davis) sends him to public high school, where his private-school ways make him an instant pariah. But he's determined to fit in and tries to find a niche to fill. Charlie eventually ends up pulling more crazy stunts, but settles down to helping kids with his bathroom psychiatry gig. Still, his antics aren't going over at all well with Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), especially since Charlie seems interested in Gardner's daughter Susan (Kat Dennings).
Charlie Bartlett is funny at times but seems awfully derivative in spots, and I don't just mean the obvious Ferris Bueller similarities. Charlie in his men's-room-as-office is a little too reminiscent of Clint Howard in Rock 'n' Roll High School. At one point, Charlie and Susan launch into "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out," which is such a blatant shoutout to Harold and Maude that I physically cringed. Fortunately, Hope Davis pops up to sing the song in such a charming way that you have to forgive the film. My guess is that the target teen audience won't be very familiar with these films anyway. Charlie Bartlett also reminded me a lot of the more recent Igby Goes Down, but much lighter in tone.
This is the directorial debut for Jon Poll, who's worked primarily as a Hollywood editor. Perhaps because it's his first film, the structure seems to be off-balance a little, and it goes on for about 15 minutes longer than I would have expected. The characters don't always behave consistently -- wouldn't a smart kid who wants to fit in and make friends have figured out that he shouldn't wear his private-school uniform on the first day of public school? And why is such a big deal made out of putting cameras in the student lounge area when no cameras appear to be anywhere else in the school, nor are there any compelling reasons given for the cameras (like a big scary campus incident)? The movie isn't quite surreal enough for us to glance over these unrealistic flaws without pause, which is problematic for a movie that wants to be a smart comedy.
On the other hand, Charlie Bartlett works as a pleasant frothy comedy, a nice way to pass the time with a few laughs. Its messages about the problems that occur when adults don't listen and pay attention to teens, and about the tendency of medical professionals to over-medicate for mental problems, work well without being too heavy-handed. But I had to rely on my notes heavily when writing this review -- after 24 hours, my primary recollections of the film were Davis singing like Ruth Gordon and Downey's character drunkenly piloting a remote-control boat around a swimming pool. Everything else was so slight that it faded away soon after the movie ended.
[For another opinion, read the review Erik Davis wrote after seeing the film at Tribeca last year. In addition, Erik interviewed screenwriter Gustin Nash, as well as director Jon Poll and star Anton Yelchin.]