In “Charlie Bartlett,” Anton Yelchen plays the title character, a teen kicked out of prep school for supplying fake IDs. His mother, played by Hope Davis, is a ditz who washes her pills down with Chardonnay and sings ditties with him at the piano; she also has no clue about what her son needs, which is peer recognition at any cost. So she sends him to a psychiatrist who prescribes Ritalin.
This latter visit occurs shortly after Charlie enters public school wearing his blue blazer with a gold-crested insignia. His very appearance in the boys’ room earns him a toilet-bowl dunking from the school bully (Tyler Hilton) sporting a Mohican cut. Unfazed by his public school welcome, Charlie trudges on, intent on finding an avenue for instant popularity.
Soon, Charlie finds his way by setting up a drug store after conning psychiatrists to prescribe more Ritalin and other pills that elevate the moods and dispositions of his peers. Charlie not only is sought out by an entire campus of kids, but with his precocious attitude and calm confidence, he holds counseling sessions in the stalls of a school john. Like a father confessor, he listens to kids vent before he dispenses advice or medication.
In the tradition of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude,” Jon Poll’s film is an erratic affair — part comedy, part serious drama. When it is on, it is hilarious; at other times, it seems to be toying clumsily with a slew of familiar ideas from novels and movies about teen angst. Here we go again with the loner, the misfit, the little philosopher who might never fit in, even when he becomes an adult — not unless he is doing something eccentric, such as trying out for a school play by belting out a song in falsetto, one of the funniest bits in the film.
There’s enough here to delight teenage audiences who will relate to the dispensing of pills like Ritalin, which, countless high school students have told me, help them perform. One of the film’s bonuses is the appearance of Robert Downey Jr. as a principal and father of Charlie’s classmate, played by Kat Dennings. Downey once more shows that he can handle a character with surety and credibility, but there are times when writer Gustin Nash seems to demand something incredible from him, such as a scene in which he wields and shoots a gun into his backyard pool.
As for Yelchin, who shone in “Hearts of Atlantis,” he is good, real good. But he has yet to find a movie that is up to the abundant talent he has to display.
The main issue I have with “Charlie Bartlett” is its jumbled, sporadic approach. Though it is perfectly understandable that a movie about a teen misfit is loose and casual, this comedy-drama is a bit too loose for comfort, too carelessly content with bopping along, delivering insights, before quickly darting onto another scene or concept. The scenes with principal Downey and his superintendent are just plain dumb.
“Charlie Bartlett” has some delightfully recognizable moments as it delves into the life of a disengaged teen. It also comes across as being a bit too smart for its own good.
In one more ridiculous example of the unworthy rating system, this movie best enjoyed by teens is rated R.
DIRECTED BY Jon Poll
SCREENPLAY BY Gustin Nash
STARRING Anton Yelchen, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis, Kat Dennings and Tyler Hilton
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes