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Overall Rating

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Average: 21.62%
Pretty Bad35.14%
Total Crap: 0%

5 reviews, 7 user ratings

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Charlie Bartlett
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by Marc Kandel

"The Evolution of Ferris to Parker to Mark to Max to Charlie. FU Van."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: Yes, “Charlie Bartlett” is a “privileged white kid has all the angles covered at his school and puts one over on those irksome authority-types” tale. Does this automatically mean I must take the cynical critic position and give it the backhand? Not when the story is so gratifying told, populated with likable characters and events so hilarious and moving, I can still smile wide just thinking about it now.

Charlie (Anton Yelchin in a remarkable performance), like any teen, wants acceptance by his peers. He has been booted out of dozens of private schools for illicit schemes used to pursue this goal (the latest being driver’s license forgery), landing him in public school where he rises to prominence as the students’ underground psychiatrist, providing advice and prescription drugs, the latter repackaged from his own psychotherapy sessions, manipulated to acquire medication matching clientele symptoms. As Charlie’s stock increases with the student body, he finds the acceptance and love he so wants, but also discovers that his influence and actions have consequences far beyond his power to control.

What makes Charlie’s systematic conquest of his school so enjoyable is the lack of malice or ego on his part- he is unselfconscious and possesses Jimmy Stewart-class sincerity. There is no meanness or sarcasm, he is genuine and open with those he encounters, sometimes to his detriment. A school bully viciously pummels Charlie on his first day (taping the encounter, with a head in the toilet finisher). Charlie takes a rather odd tactic in response, and soon his tormentor is his business partner (Charlie profiting on his own video beatdown by selling copies to fellow students, a la Bumfights) after Charlie muscles him to reason with his first friend made at the school, a large special education boy who adores Charlie for having lunch with him and treating him politely and considerately.

This is Charlie’s power: he is a humanist. He listens to people, strives to understand them and is captivated by them. His manner establishes trust, and creates a legion of students ready to do anything for him. The pharmaceutical connections don’t hurt, but at the core, people like Charlie. I like Charlie. I believe in this character. The film’s messages concerning teen medication, lack of wisdom in youth and adults alike, the question of rebellion versus societal rules, all the paths we’ve explored are tread over again, but Charlie Bartlett makes it an amazingly fresh journey, and comes down to a great character piece when all is said and done.

It’s hard to believe a teen exuding such serenity; the Ferris Buellers and Max Fishers have a touch due to a strong sense of identity, but one can also see disagreeable traits such as smugness and contemptuousness barely held in check, and here is where Charlie differs. Anton Yelchin skillfully avoids the pitfalls of playing Charlie snide or smartassed, and creates an interesting, warm human being.

Charlie’s take charge attitude may smack of aristocratic pomp- those in a position to solve problems should do so for the betterment of all (and has Charlie really never encountered the same types of people found in high school in private schools? No bullies or drug dealers to be found at the Cheshire Academy?), but his charming optimism and naiveté are not just symptoms of privilege. The secret lies with Charlie’s mother, Marilyn, a warm, wonderful, sad performance from Hope Davis, who ironically portrayed Yelchin’s shrewd, manipulative mother in Hearts in Atlantis, an attempted cash-in on what I call “Shawshank Money” by way of strained, sentimental pap- thankfully the duo get another chance here in a far superior film.

Marilyn Bartlett floats in a pleasant prescription cocktail, the longtime imprisonment of her husband for an undisclosed crime leaving her unable to function as a parent. Charlie takes care of his mother as much as himself, the two enjoying a unique relationship of respect and genuine love and affection, Marilyn’s adoration for Charlie unquestionable but providing no real disciplinary standards or parental boundaries. Charlie’s exceedingly pleasant, open mannerisms match his mother’s, aspects of her drugged behavior unconsciously aped by Charlie (minus the meds), a child taking on traits of the parent. The relationship works for a few laughs, but is also touching and very real, Charlie existing as the only good thing in Marilyn’s life. She is so proud of her son, loves him ferociously and when he does create trouble, her hurt is very real despite being veiled in an amiable haze.

Another performance demanding attention is Robert Downey Jr.’s as Principal Gardner, formerly a history teacher free to connect with his students rather than police them. His tenure as principal has left him with a drinking problem, a curiously apathetic approach to his students, and a strained relationship with his daughter, exacerbated when Charlie becomes smitten with her and the two begin a relationship.

As a foil to Charlie, Gardner isn’t the Ed Rooney or Dean Wormer type most scholastic-satire films put forward for the purpose of humiliation and ridicule. He is a smart, wry man who has lost his way, much like Rushmore’s Herman Blume, only instead of finding a kindred spirit in Charlie, he is annoyed at Charlie’s blasé attitude and interference in the running of his school and incensed at the thought of Charlie seeing his daughter. Charlie’s confrontations with Gardner escalate to incendiary proportions affecting the whole school. Charlie, a canny entrepreneur but a poor forward thinker, enjoys his popularity and influence, but doesn’t allow for the actions and abuses of others. Gardner in turn allows the confrontation become too personal to effectively govern his students, and his myopic view of the situation leads to bad decisions on his part until finally the two are forced to have it out.

What really drives this scene home is the fact that Charlie is not in the right, a major departure from other films of this ilk. Downey’s portrayal of a flawed human being who has mishandled a situation allows him to make his point that Charlie is a child, and there are consequences he is not prepared for and irreparable harm he can do that youth does not excuse. Did I mention this is done at gunpoint? Like I said, I love this film.

Kat Dennings, last seen as Catherine Keener‘s daughter in The 40 Year Old Virgin has exquisite chemistry with Yelchin, portraying the Principal’s daughter Susan, whose general loveliness and similar familial circumstances make her irresistible to Charlie (Gardner’s mother has left her father leaving the two of them to fend for themselves, and her father’s position in the school is always a source of tension). Dennings and Downey play off each other beautifully, and Dennings makes sure that her teen angst never interferes with the love her character obviously has for her father even when he’s not at his parental best, another fine performance meriting attention.

“Charlie Bartlett” is one of the good ones folks, easily the best time I had at the film festival. It's a lot of fun, and it’s got teeth. Hopefully we will all be able to enjoy it in theaters at some point.

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originally posted: 05/10/07 00:49:56
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User Comments

1/09/09 Anonymous. i wish i had someone like charlie bartlett in my life... 4 stars
12/06/08 Lee cheerful, fun, light comedy 5 stars
10/07/08 Charles Tatum Alternately compelling and irritating, but Downey's great 3 stars
4/25/08 Heather Purplethorne Another leave-you-hanging ending. Harrowingly melodramatic film before that. 2 stars
3/09/08 Bubba O'Reilly Ferris Bueller goes to school.... on Valium 3 stars
3/03/08 Nicholas Plowman Good review, I loved this film. It opened in South Africa awhile ago, I cant stop seeing it 4 stars
7/30/07 Morghan Phoenix Watched it at the pre-release showing and would definatly say this is worth the money. 5 stars
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  22-Feb-2008 (R)
  DVD: 24-Jun-2008



Directed by
  Jon Poll

Written by
  Gustin Nash

  Anton Yelchin
  Robert Downey Jr.
  Hope Davis
  Tyler Hilton
  Jake Epstein
  Lauren Collins

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