An acquaintance of mine loves the movie “Rushmore” so much that he was mortally offended by “Charlie Bartlett,” which borrows most of its plot and a lot of its tone. While I can see his point, and while I would caution any hardcore “Rushmore” devotees against seeing it, I do think “Charlie Bartlett” is smarter, deeper, and funnier than most teen-oriented comedies. It’s praiseworthy for those reasons, never mind where it got its ideas from.
The title character, played by Anton Yelchin (“Alpha Dog,” TV’s “Huff”), is a rich kid who’s been expelled from one private school after another for various white-collar crimes, including selling fake IDs. His father is “gone”; his mother, Marilyn (Hope Davis), is permissive and insecure, a boozy, pill-popping wreck who seems more interested in being Charlie’s friend than in being his mother. When she finally does decide to discipline him, she has to ask his advice on how long he should be grounded. She’s never done it before, and she doesn’t know what the norm is. (“About 36 hours,” he tells her.)
With the list of prep schools exhausted, Marilyn sends Charlie to public school for the first time, where his native intelligence, baby face, and unfamiliarity with the uncouth ways of public school make him an easy target for bullying. It doesn’t help that he keeps dressing like a private-school student, sport coat and all.
His mother makes him see a shrink — the family has one on call — who prescribes him Ritalin, which Charlie decides to sell rather than ingest. (His brief personal experience with the drug convinces him it should be for recreational use only.) Like Ferris Bueller before him, Charlie is a natural leader and a person who makes lemonade from lemons. He enlists the bully who pummeled him, Murphey Bivens (Tyler Hilton), as his business partner and cashier, and sets up shop in the boys’ bathroom. There he sees “patients,” hears their troubles, and determines what kind of prescription drugs could help them. Then he goes back to his own shrinks, claims the symptoms for himself, and gets the pharmaceuticals.
It’s an ambitious enterprise, but it does some good, too. There in the bathroom confessional, with doctor and patient in separate stalls, the students can reveal things they could never tell their parents or family physicians. Charlie is one of them — somehow better than them, they believe, and ridiculously smart, but still just another high school student. They know they can trust him.
Meanwhile, Charlie begins a cute romance with Susan Gardner (Kat Dennings), a nice girl whose father (Robert Downey Jr.) is the school principal. Her relationship with her dad is less adversarial then you’d think; she shows a kindness to him, particularly in their home life, as she’s aware he’s battled drugs and alcohol in the past. (Kudos to Robert Downey Jr. for playing a role like that without overplaying the art-imitates-life angle.) The principal, aware of Charlie’s status as a troublemaker, cautions his daughter away from him, but the two males ultimately find common ground.
Director Jon Poll and writer Gustin Nash, both previously uncredited in feature films, examine teen life in a way that’s edgy without being self-conscious and hilarious without being dumb. Yelchin’s performance is key, and the kid is likable and interesting, with a youthful appearance (he was 17 when the film was shot) that belies the machinations that are constantly tumbling around in his head. Yelchin and Charlie Bartlett and the movie itself have a certain exuberance about them, looking for ways to be cheerful in spite of all the horrors that adolescence has to offer.
B (1 hr., 37 min.; )