Early on in “Charlie Bartlett,” the feature debut from director John Poll and writer Gustin Nash, the titular character (Anton Yelchin) asks his mother (Hope Davis) what more there is “to high school than being well-liked?” While his mother cannot offer an answer, the film tries to suggest that “being yourself” is more important. The film’s own inability to be itself, however, detracts from this otherwise admirable message. Though the story ultimately feels contrived, “Charlie Bartlett” provides the perfect vehicle to showcase Yelchin’s considerable comedic talent.
Expelled from a series of private academies, rich boy Charlie Bartlett must attend the local public school, West Summit High. Initially, Charlie does not fit in with his fellow students: On the first day alone, Charlie receives a beating from the school bully, Murphy Bivens (Tyler Hilton). At the recommendation of his family’s on-call psychiatrist, Charlie starts taking Ritalin. He quickly discovers that psychiatric help is in high demand among the student population. Ever scheming, Charlie teams up with his former nemesis, Murphy, to fulfill this demand. Fooling a host of psychiatrists into prescribing him the needed drugs, Charlie dispenses pills and advice from his makeshift office in the boys’ bathroom.
Meanwhile, Charlie becomes romantically involved with the principal’s daughter, the edgy-but-kind Susan Gardner (Kat Dennings). Despite his troubles with alcoholism, Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) proves a caring father to Susan. At work, however, Principal Gardner is an entirely ineffective administrator and disciplinarian: Like Charlie, he obsesses over being “well-liked.” For a principal, this is not a job asset. As Charlie wins the affection of Susan and the entire student body, Principal Gardner makes it his personal mission to destroy Charlie.
Unfortunately, at this point “Charlie Bartlett” unravels. The power struggle between Charlie and Principal Gardner becomes increasingly unrealistic. The resulting conflict involves two physical altercations and an act of mass-student vandalism. These scenes simply do not fit the comic tone established earlier in the film. Consequently, the reconciliation of Charlie and Principal Gardner appears artificial as well: The characters fall too far apart to come back together in a believable fashion.
This artificiality is not the fault of the actors but a fault of the material. Throughout “Charlie Bartlett,” Nash supplies his characters with bizarre one-liners clearly intended for comic effect. Though often hilarious, these lines seem distinctly separate from the reality of the film and produce odd moments of detachment from Charlie’s story.
Poll’s direction also contributes to this unreality. In an attempt to represent Charlie’s drug-induced thoughts, the film imagines Charlie wildly bouncing a basketball in an empty pool. In another scene, Poll uses a slow-motion montage to depict Charlie losing his virginity to Susan. At these moments, the film feels self-consciously cinematic; this then is precisely where “Charlie Bartlett” fails. These scenes detract from the film’s attempts at sincerity.
Yelchin’s performance, however, still makes a viewing worthwhile. Previously seen in Showtime’s “Huff” and “Alpha Dog,” Yelchin stars in his first leading role and succeeds in every regard. With a goofy, unassuming smile, Yelchin renders Charlie immediately likeable. In a film plagued by artificiality, Yelchin is able to make Charlie — an excessively precocious character — instantly believable.
The role also gives Yelchin the opportunity to demonstrate his impressive talent for physical comedy. Whether enacting the emotions of his student patients to befuddled therapists or performing a hilarious monologue about menstruation, Yelchin makes use of his body for comic effect.
Yelchin also holds tremendous rapport with Davis. Together they successfully portray an unusual mother-son dynamic, where Charlie is clearly the adult to his pill-popping mother. In their brief interactions, the duo proves hilarious. It is a shame then that this relationship takes a backseat to the film’s more pressing plot concerns.
Dennings, a relative newcomer, delivers a nicely understated performance as Charlie’s girlfriend. She manages to keep her character both attractive and compelling. Downey Jr. is obviously believable as an alcoholic father, but as the plot renders his character more and more absurd, he strains to keep up.
While “Charlie Bartlett” attempts to tackle serious issues — psychiatric drug use, juvenile parents and even absentee fathers — the film feels insincere. As his performance demonstrates, Yelchin deserves better material in the future. Hopefully his success here will help propel his career toward more opportunities to display his extraordinary acting ability.