One of the many movies I watched because of my love and appreciation of Anton Yelchin, and probably would have never even noticed otherwise. And likewise one of his many movies that wound up surprising me with unexpected greatness. Charlie Bartlett tells the story of a rich high school student who is kicked out of yet another private school and must attend a public school. Charlie's goal in life is to be popular, so he begins to use his rich-kid connections to deal prescription drugs to the student body. Along with listening to their problems and giving them advice, because hey, he's a nice guy.
|"Would you like to talk about it?"
I've seen this film twice now, and both times was on TV and edited for content. The original is rated R, just for your information. Also, obviously, the film deals with mature and questionable content. The whole plot is about drugs, and the lead is a full-on drug dealer whichever way you slice it. It's also technically a teen dramedy and ticks all the boxes that usually requires. It touches on a lot of serious subjects and always seems to be on the verge of going down a path that is too dark. The first time I watched it, that all came as unexpected. I was just there to watch Anton and have a giggle, but the movie really is more than that. I sat down with it again yesterday with a totally different mindset, and this time the movie clicked for me.
This time I paid attention to what the movie is trying to say. On the surface it easily seems like a casually promiscuous movie full of characters doing objectionable things and getting away with it. But I was surprised at how morally upright it was in the end (comparatively) and at how good its message and themes were. The movie strikes a neat grey area by having Charlie do bad things with good intentions, particularly selling prescription drugs to students. He doesn't need the money; he does it for two reasons: One, he feel that it's important to be popular during high school years. And two, he actually does care for the students. He knows that they often can't or won't get professional help, and thinks he can be a good third option. And in a lot of ways he is.
|The doctor is in.
He spends a lot of time listening to kids who have never had anyone listen to them before, and genuinely tries to help them. When his doling out meds backfires he even continues to listen and give advice free of charge. Charlie always seems to be in the pursuit of doing the right thing. And really this story is about him discovering what exactly the right thing is. He messes up a lot along the way, and almost in some permanent ways, but he mends his mistakes and he gets there, and it's very rewarding when he does.
What's really neat about this character is that, like the film that features him, his surface impression is actually very inaccurate to the real him. Charlie looks and acts like his life is well-put-together, but really he's just as confused and messed up as anyone. His obsession with being liked is very easy to relate to, and slowly we discover ever darker and deeper sides to him. Anger and insecurity which he keeps suppressed -- and even that he does with good intentions -- but it comes out slowly, and impressively subtly for a teen flick. Really I don't think this should count as a teenage movie. It's much too deep, and intricate, and thoughtful for that. Its biggest failings come when it tries to work within the teen flick genre and shortchanges itself.
|Charlie's mother played by Hope Davis is excellent.
Anton Yelchin always gave enjoyable performances, but this stands out in a few ways. Firstly he was given a chance to really run wild with exaggerated performances bits. I loved all the scenes where he was at the piano, dramatically showing off. But also there are several moments that required intricate depth too. Like where the character himself his acting -- putting on a front to hide his real emotions -- and he portrays the real emotion and the emotion the character is trying to show. That can't have been easy at all. He pulled it off beautifully.
Also in the cast is Kat Dennings as the love interest Susan, and the school principle Mr. Gardner is her father, played by Robert Downey Jr. He gives a very good performance too. At first he seems like a bad guy, out to get Charlie like Mr. Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but he becomes more and more clearly a mess too, with his own desire to be liked. And all that tension between him and Charlie finally culminates at the end in a great scene by the pool. I love that scene. It's the moment where the movie fully and finally transcends the teen flick genre. The stakes slowly climb during the whole film, and there both the characters are finally in over their heads and the facades come down. And then the drama resolves as forgiveness is passed around and things that were for so long right on edge of toppling into cynical tragedy turn around into happy and encouraging endings.
|"Some days are better than others."
The theme of forgiveness is very strong, and there's also plenty to be said for loving your neighbor and selfless love (there is great, realistic examples of this shown between Charlie and his mother, and Susan and her dad), and the movie is also very understanding in pointing out the true unimportance of being liked just for the sake of being liked. "It's not the popularity; it's what you do with it," it says. And if a kid like Charlie can figure that out, I guess there's hope for the rest of us, too.