94. Charlie Bartlett
Charlie Bartlett came out in 2007 and was unfairly compared to Superbad and Juno for being an “unrealistic” movie about high school. I think this is a little unfair, for starters Juno is about as realistic as the mother/daughter relationship on Gilmore Girls (both of which feature characters who talk too fast and are far too witty and detailed to be even reasonably realistic) and secondly, I don’t think this movie ever pretended to be realistic.
Charlie Bartlett tells the story of Charlie (Anton Yelchin), a rich boy whose only friend is his mother. Charlie desperately wants to be accepted by his peers and after being kicked out of every single private school is enrolled into a public school. He’s not immediately liked. He befriends a mentally challenged character Len (who is a wonderfully enjoyable character but just disappears mid-movie) and is beaten up by the school bully Murphy. The incident leads to Charlie being wrongly prescribed Ritalin, which leads him towards a freak out. Charlie decides to contact Murphy and the two begin selling the drugs at the school dance.
One day a student with serious anxiety problems named Kip come up to Charlie asking for help. The two walk into the bathroom and Kip tells him about his anxiety attacks. Charlie goes to his therapist that day and repeats everything Kip had told him. The therapist gives him a diagnosis, which Charlie in turn gives to Kip. Charlie becomes the school therapist performing all of his work in the men’s bathroom and eventually becomes increasingly popular. The general idea of the “bathroom stall confessional” is one of the most appealing elements of entire film and certainly one of those plot devices that makes you wonder, “why didn’t I think of that?”
Principal Nathan Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) knows that something is up but has no real evidence. He’s an emotional wreck as it is. He was once a well-loved teacher at the school but since becoming principal he has lost the respect of the student body and is currently on thin ice with the superintendent. As if his problems couldn’t be worse his daughter Susan (Kat Dennings) has begun dating Charlie.
As I’m sure you can expect, a student eventually overdoses on his prescription. The student is Kip. He is not killed, however, and refuses to say where he got the drugs. Charlie and Kip become friends and Kip shows Charlie a play that he had been working on about high school. Charlie finally convinces Principal Gardner to let them perform the play because “it’s important that the students hear its message.”
Throughout the film, there have been various students protesting the school’s installation of cameras in the student lounge. They use Charlie’s popularity to get a huge protest one night that results in Charlie’s arrest, consequently leading the students to riot and Nathan Gardner to be fired.
The following day Charlie goes to pick up Susan and drive her to play. When he arrives Nathan is on the patio, quite drunk, walking around with a gun. Charlie tries to stop him from taking his life and ends up falling into the pool below. Nathan dives in and saves Charlie. The two go to the play, which ends with Susan singing Sing Out, Sing Out by Cat Stevens, a song made famous in the movie Harold & Maude.
I quite enjoy the movie and have been a fan of it since it was first released. While most critics felt the movie was uneven and didn’t have “a single likable character,” I found them to be appropriately layered, giving them a stronger sense of reality. Charlie represents every creative-minded person who just longs to be loved. He is the Gonzo to the world’s Muppet Show, a misunderstood mind.
There’s so much to like about this movie. The music is almost always pitch-perfect with the tone the movie is trying to present. The camera work is excellent; director Jon Poll knows how to fill the screen with objects that combine Charlie’s privileged background with the blue-collared lifestyle of the people around him.
Robert Downey Jr. is incredible at Principal Nathan Gardener which isn’t too shocking, since roughly 2004 RDJ has been a unstoppable acting force giving 100% in all his work regardless if the script is great or just plain awful.
The speeches that Charlie delivers to his fellow students (or in dreams of his) are simplistic but legitimately inspiring. The main message of his speeches centers around the general concept that “you are not alone” and “can do whatever you want if you just try”. Feel free to call them simple “Sesame Street” messages, but in a world where every movie has this major message attached to it, it’s nice to have a simple message film here and there.
The Biggest downfall of the movie is that it tries too hard to be homages to other films. Instead of being able to watch the movie for what it is you’re going to be constantly thinking about how Charlie reminds you of Ferris Bueller, or how the first half the movie reminds you of Rushmore, or how the riot sequence reminds you of Pump Up the Volume. Furthermore, the usage of Sing Out, Sing Out by Cat Stevens will feel familiar not just because you’re a fan of Harold & Maude but because it’s first presented in the movie almost identically how Maude first plays the song to Harold.
Charlie Bartlett is not an award-winning movie and shouldn’t be considered one, but it is one of those films that you can’t help but enjoy; in the back of your mind think of how much better the film could have been.