Much like its title character, Charlie Bartlett just doesn't fit in with its peer group (teen movies and psychology dramedies). And both the character and movie go to show you that sometimes it's good--in this case very good--not to fit in.
On the outside, Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) couldn't be further from the mold of a "normal teenager." He wears a suit everywhere, he is precocious, and he has a spring in his step that suggests oblivion to his high school surroundings. Of course, Charlie isn't really at all oblivious and at his core is very much that "normal teenager": He wants only to be popular. After starting anew at a public school--because he got kicked out of yet another private school for distributing fake IDs--Charlie is promptly pummeled for the way he dresses by the school's bully (Tyler Hilton). He complains to his psychiatrist, whom his mother (Hope Davis) keeps on retainer. The shrink decides to put Charlie on Ritalin. Ever the entrepreneur, Charlie tries to parlay his easy access to drugs into popularity, and it works like gangbusters. Before long, "Dr. Charlie" is listening, diagnosing and prescribing drugs to the entire student faculty. He's got the popularity, the trust and the girl (Kat Dennings), the latter of which just happens to be the principal's (Robert Downey Jr.) daughter. And that relationship--not to mention the slight legality issue of prescribing controlled substances to minors--threatens to ruin his whole operation.
Yelchin (Alpha Dog) is a Hollywood rarity: He's an 'it' boy because of his acting, not his looks (sorry, Anton). Rarer still is the fact that Yelchin's actual age is near that of Charlie Bartlett, and not since the days of Freaks and Geeks has that industry taboo been broken so successfully. It's all a credit to the young actor, who, in the span of Bartlett, oozes everything from vulnerability and precociousness to Ritalin-induced mania and the theatricality of a much older actor. There's nothing he can't do in this movie; the same goes for his acting future. And the same goes for his adversary in Bartlett, Downey Jr., although that's been abundantly clear for decades now. Downey Jr. is famous for making seemingly effortless work of a complex character, which is precisely what he does with Principal Gardner--a concerned parent, recovering alcoholic and dutiful high school enforcer/villain. He's a force to be reckoned with on screen, and when Yelchin's Charlie finally squares off with him, the scene is a thing of beauty. As an essential link between those two characters, Dennings (40-Year-Old Virgin) is a credible charmer and, refreshingly, the rare non-ditzy, non-clichéd high school-portrayed girl we're used to seeing. Rounding out the cast is Davis (American Splendor), aka Laura Linney-in-waiting. Her clueless alcoholic mom is a source of laughs and, ultimately, sobriety--for the character and us.
For the first time in his decades-long career, Jon Poll trades the editing room for the director's chair. And after seeing Bartlett, it makes sense that Poll, who has edited movies like Austin Powers in Goldmember and Meet the Parents/Fockers, is a behind-the-scenes veteran but a rookie helmer. His debut is fresh and loose but also very sure-handed. The movie is constantly a pleasant, unclassifiable surprise, spurning both the raunchiness of teen comedies and the pretention of psychology dramedies. The result is something far less precious and opaque than Wes Anderson's Rushmore--to which Bartlett bears a broad thematic resemblance--yet a sharp commentary nonetheless. To that end, Gustin Nash's debut screenplay is just as impressive as his director's rookie effort. His writing is clearly steeped in satire, namely how loose today's doctors are with the prescription pads--especially when it comes to our children--but it's also able to be sweet and real when necessary. It's the most impressive screenplay debut we've seen in a while--gold standard Juno notwithstanding--and the directorial one isn't too shabby itself.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.