Friday, February 22, 2008

Charlie Bartlett: The doctor is in

Charlie Bartlett (2007) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug content, teenage smoking and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.22.08

Hang around long enough, and you'll spot this disclaimer at the very bottom of the final credits for Charlie Bartlett:

"No teenagers were harmed in the making of this motion picture."

Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr., center) gets curious after spotting a long
line of boys and girls waiting to visit the boys restroom, but before he can peer
inside, a thoroughly calm Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin, left) emerges and
heads off in the other direction ... at which point the other students disappear
as well, leaving Gardner to wonder again precisely what the new kid in school
is up to.
That observation sums up the wonderfully arch tone of Gustin Nash's script, which fuels another mordant view of high school life, very much in the mold of Election and Juno.

Indeed, Nash and director Jon Poll quite cleverly reference one of the great anti-establishment movies of all time, by making prominent use of the Cat Stevens song "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out," which served as an anthem for 1972's Harold and Maude. The song's appearance here conveys precisely the same sort of triumphant coda: a wistful reminder that success and survival often erupt in unexpected ways, and that some of the best happy endings involve simply surviving another day.

With integrity intact. That's the most important part.

Charlie Bartlett is as hilariously dark a view of high school dynamics as I've seen since Heathers. That film made a heroine out of a girl who essentially turned serial killer in order to establish a place in the social pecking order, whereas Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) gets ahead in his school by supplying prescription medication to an expanding base of "clients."

The film opens as Charlie is expelled from yet another private school, for making and selling impressively realistic IDs. Although outwardly every inch the blueprint of an educated, well-spoken preppy scholar, Charlie has been tossed from every institution within range of the palatial estate he shares with his somewhat scattered mother, Marilyn (Hope Davis).

That leaves only the local public high school: a bubbling stew of unrestrained hormones and individualists who naturally view the academy-dressed Charlie with giggling derision. Our hero eventually makes his way home with a black eye, courtesy of schoolyard thug Murphy (Tyler Hilton, who played the young Elvis Presley in Walk the Line).

Charlie's mother, incapable of considering any other alternative, sends her only child to the shrink they keep on retainer; that gentleman, not really motivated to "cure" this ongoing cash cow, suggests a regimen of Ritalin.

But Charlie's smarter than that. After wisely rejecting this prescription, having perceived that a five-day dose turns him into an over-stimulated madman, he transforms the hostile Murphy into a business partner; they sell the rest of the pills to an eager consumer base at the next high school dance, and marvel at the results.

Suddenly, Charlie has found a new business model ... and a path toward his own popularity.

It begins when the chronically shy Kip (Mark Rendall) — the token melancholy loner ignored by virtually everybody — confesses his insecurities to Charlie, and wonders if some sort of prescription concoction might make him feel better. Within days, Charlie is conducting "sessions" in the boys restroom, carefully noting symptoms and then reproducing them himself, during the next visit with his own shrink, in order to obtain the medication needed to treat this or that emotional disorder; he and Murphy then dole out the drugs.

It's the ultimate cynical indictment of our modern Prozac nation, not to mention a hilarious denunciation of parents who'd even consider shortcut chemical answers to behavior questions better addressed by quality time spent with their kids.

If this were the sole basis of Nash's script, the results would be horrifying. The brilliance comes from the subtlety of the various character dynamics, not to mention the complexities of Charlie himself: At heart, he's clearly a good kid trying to fit in, like everybody else, with a much greater than average sensitivity toward the frustrations and heartaches of his peers. He genuinely wants to help; his methods are simply ... ah ... illegal.

Kat Dennings co-stars as Susan Gardner, the girl who catches Charlie's eye. He makes points with her on his first day, by signing up for a drama tryout and then delivering an audition that must be experienced to be believed. Aside from demonstrating Yelchin's impressive acting chops, the scene is hilarious beyond describing ... and also establishes Charlie's talent for feigning all the psychological ills that'll later deceive so many psychiatrists.

Charlie and Susan are a natural fit, but she's not entirely taken in by the showmanship that works with most of the student body; she wants to know more about her new boyfriend-to-be, and she's not shy about asking hard questions ... such as those involving the father that Charlie never discusses.

Dennings and Yelchin share plenty of chemistry, and their scenes together are quite sweet, whether noodling at a piano or enjoying some privacy during a party in her "office" (pretty much the best love den you could imagine).

The film's standout performance, however, comes from Robert Downey Jr.; he plays Susan's father, Gardner, who happens to be the school principal. Gardner, once a popular history teacher who misses those less complicated days, has grown disenchanted with the administrative bully he has become; the catalyst for change — the straw that threatens to break his back, while destroying the last bit of respect some students may have for him — comes with a district mandate to install surveillance cameras in the student lounge.

Gardner is additionally dismayed to discover that his daughter has begun to date their school's new "bad boy" ... although the former history prof can't quite conceal a level of admiration for Charlie's entrepreneurial skills. We can see it in Downey's eyes.

Actually, we see a lot more in Downey's eyes, and in his manner. Susan knows that her father has been drinking more, ever since becoming school principal, and Downey delivers this downward spiral with a level of resigned self-loathing that probably bespeaks his own personal experience. We can be sad for the real-world demons that have plagued this superb actor, but at the same time they certainly fuel persuasive performances in parts of this nature.

Downey also chomps into Nash's dialogue with enthusiasm. This film is laden with great lines that initially emerge from one character, and then circle around and reappear later in the story, more tellingly, from a second individual.

Nor do I want to overlook Davis, so perfect as Charlie's emotionally fragile mother. Theirs is an odd relationship, but what seems played for laughs at first blush eventually makes perfect sense, and you'll come to feel sorry for this woman who never quite recovered from a crisis that overwhelmed her.

That's the primary beauty of Nash's script, and Poll's delicate handling of these characters: Charlie Bartlett's story is funny at its core, and we cannot help but laugh (and quite frequently). But this film also has its poignant and unexpectedly serious moments — deadly serious, in a few cases — and I'm tremendously impressed by a director, writer and cast who can simultaneously navigate so many emotional waters, without the whole project collapsing into clumsy farce.

With its largely unknown cast and small budget, Charlie Bartlett may be a slow starter, but it's the sort of film that demands repeat viewing ... not to mention the immediate purchase of its soundtrack CD and eventual purchase as a DVD, in order to endlessly re-play its best scenes.

I predict great things for this little film: Charlie Bartlett definitely is the kid most likely to succeed.

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