After hearing of his tragic death last month, I was reminded of my love for young actor Anton Yelchin, and I revisited one of his earlier films: the high school dramedy Charlie Bartlett in which he plays the eponymous Charlie.
Charlie Bartlett is a peculiar film, opening with the tonal energy of a light-hearted, Hughesian teen comedy but concluding with several succeeding scenes of psychological insight that leave one reasonably more dour than expected.
Yelchin’s charming Charlie is the son of wealthy parents, his father in jail for tax evasion and his mother (Hope Davis) struggling to keep the house in order. Expelled from private school for producing fake IDs, Charlie starts attending a public high school. Initially mocked for his background and precise dress sense, Charlie’s keen mind soon realises what each of his troubled peers needs: someone to talk to. He establishes a makeshift shrink’s office in the school bathroom (haven’t we all?) and befriends an assortment of jocks, cheerleaders and nerds.
It’s all sweet and fun, with Yelchin’s beaming face of absolute sincerity a true joy to watch throughout, until Charlie starts supplying prescription medication to his classmates. Cue a lot of mad partying, a suicide attempt by an anxious loner and multiple clashes with Robert Downey Jr.’s Principal Gardner (whose daughter- Kat Dennings- Charlie happens to be dating).
Yelchin and Downey Jr. are a great pair of enemies: they share a fiery energy, but express this in such different ways. As Charlie gets his kicks from “helping” other teenagers, listening to their experiences and obtaining a false sense of self-stability, Gardner descends into serious alcoholism.
The balance of the two characters is brilliantly depicted by the actors, but their work is often let down by an indecisive script- seemingly unsure whether this is a PG-13 teen film or an R-rated indie drama (it seems it was released and received as the latter). Dennings’ Susan Gardner is a poorly-drawn character, flip-flopping between loyalty to her father (who, we are given strong reason to believe, is a principled and kind man) and boyfriend (who, after a while, starts acting very selfishly): her processes are difficult to understand.
For those, like myself, who thoroughly enjoy scenes of anti-establishment school vandalism (the students run riot after CCTV is installed in their “Student Lounge”) and declarations that “This is a school, not a prison!”, Charlie Bartlett offers up enough madcap mayhem to solidly entertain. In terms of overall quality, this film isn’t at the high end of the 2000s high-school drama spectrum, but I sure wish the wonderful Yelchin had made a few more like it…