Directed by Jon Poll
Written by Gustin Nash
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, and Robert Downey, Jr.
If you’ve seen the trailers for “Charlie Bartlett,” you’re probably expecting the movie to be a comedy in the style of “Juno,” as I expected when I went to a screening a few weeks ago. Instead, I found a rather serious drama with a few comedic elements. When I asked first time director Jon Poll about this, he explained that this is how the studio chose to market it. In fact, the original script was even darker and was made “warm and funnier with Gustin [Nash].”
“Charlie Bartlett” is the story of – you guessed it – Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin), a wealthy teenager who is forced into public school after he is kicked out of yet another private school. An awkward and gangly teen who doesn’t really fit in (and as we all know, all teenagers want to do is fit in), Charlie decides his ticket to popularity is to become the unofficial school psychologist, offering both therapy and medication for the unhappy student population. Meanwhile, he starts dating Susan (Kat Dennings), the daughter of the principal (Robert Downey, Jr.), who is suffering from his own demons. Obviously, the principal does not approve of Charlie medicating the students, which is one major plot line of the movie. But the real conflicts are more individual, as characters grapple with trying to fit in and realize they all far more complex than generic classifications. As I said, this is not a comedy.
Yelchin as the title character has an incredibly demanding role, and he does it justice. As Poll told me, “I always knew it was Anton . . . He was able to show great humor and kind of a wisdom beyond his chronological year.” Charlie Bartlett, at any given time, has to be awkward, confident, witty, depressed, and confused. Yelchin is able to portray this multifaceted personality with his confident walk, dry humor, intellectual speech, and wise eyes. And on top of all this, he doesn’t overpower the rest of the cast; he lets other actors shine, and the movie is better for it. I can’t help but agree that no one else could have played Charlie Bartlett as well as Anton.
Just like Yelchin, the supporting actors were impressive. Downey knows just how powerful and intense silence can be as he portrays the alcoholic and unhappy principal. You feel his pain but know there is still a lively person in there somewhere who wants to do right by his students, and more importantly, his daughter. In addition, Hope Davis as Charlie’s haughty, fragile, confident, and perfectly attired mother steals every scene, though some of that might be due to the glue that seems plastered to her porcelain skin and bleach blonde hair. However, even more impressive than either of these characters is Tyler Hilton as the bully, Murphey Bivens. Murphey, despite his bullying, actually goes into “business” with Charlie when the latter starts offering his services as school psychiatrist. Throughout the movie, just like every other character, we see that he does not just fall into the box labeled “bully.” Instead, he shows a more sensitive side, without losing his tough exterior. And Hilton is so successful at becoming this character that when I looked him up on imdb.com, I could not believe how incredibly good-looking he is in real life; he looks like a leading man for a romantic comedy, not a school bully. The director told me he chose this to show that “a bully doesn’t just appear.”
But really, it is the combination of Gustin Nash’s script and Poll’s direction that make this movie work. Nash wrote an intelligent screenplay that shows the complexities of teenagers and adults alike. And Poll created a high school that could be gritty and idealistic at times, but is perhaps the most like a real school I’ve ever seen in a movie. Without this realism, none of these characters could have been as complicated and lifelike as they were portrayed, and the movie would not have had the same resonance that I’ve felt from it weeks later. This is not say the movie is without flaws. It’s a little slow at times, and a little more humor would have been appreciated, especially considering the advertising. But once I got over the fact that the movie was not going to be a comedy, I enjoyed it for what it is – an honest look at high school, the complexities of human personalities, and the need for people to listen to each other without judgement.