"The first two acts are the prescription for what’s wrong in the third."
The strange irony of ‘Charlie Bartlett’ is that the film is at its best when the title character is at his most misguided. Screenwriter Gustin Nash has created a fresh and engaging story that loses its buzz once it tries to give its protagonist a moral center.Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is an amiable teen whose ability to win friends is directly tied to his habit of breaking the law. He winds up expelled from a private school because he’s developed the unfortunate hobby of printing fake driver’s licenses.
Most parents would probably punish their offspring for a stunt like that, but Charlie’s affluent mother (Hope Davis) thinks the lad should be rewarded for the skill of his forgeries and that taking a nine-year-old to a wine tasting is normal.
When Charlie is forced into a public school, he takes poorly to having to deal with the bullies and other issues. His inept psychiatrist (David Fraser) prescribes Ritalin, which turns the eccentric lad into a manic jackrabbit.
Realizing he doesn’t need the meds, Charlie teams up with the thug (Tyler Hilton) who has tormented him and starts selling his drugs to their classmates. Charlie even starts going to his doctors and imitating his peers’ symptoms to obtain the additional drugs the others need.
Needless to say, Charlie sympathetic ear and access to illicit chemicals make him popular with the other students and the bane of the school’s ineffectual and alcoholic of Principal Norton (who else but Robert Downey, Jr.?). Charlie makes his own position even riskier by dating Norton’s daughter (Kat Dennings).
It’s no wonder the bright, well-meaning lad is on his way to more trouble. Much of the charm of the early portions of the film comes from the fact that Charlie’s misdeeds are rarely malicious, and Yelchin projects a wily intelligence that belies the wrongheadedness of some of his mistakes. He’s guaranteed to cause a ruckus, but what sort of mischief he’ll create is delightfully unpredictable.
During the early portions of the film, screenwriter Gustin Nash manages to make the most squirm-inducing ideas not only palatable, but achingly funny. There’s a strange innocence that he and first-time director Jon Poll approach the story that makes Charlie’s drug peddling success seem almost natural without condoning it. The viewers can figure out for themselves that Charlie’s playing with fire, but his eagerness to help almost makes you think he has a future listening to people on couches.
As the story progresses, Poll and Nash give the story a conscience and wind up diluting what makes the tale such a guilty pleasure. The pat conclusion seems out of character with the rest of the film. Watching teens bouncing up and down on Ritalin tells viewers that Charlie’s situation isn’t sustainable.
Despite the letdown, Poll and Nash make some really intriguing choices that help the film. For one thing, the actors playing teens are actually within throwing distance of puberty. It’s irritating to watch teen dramas or comedies where the thespians appear well past the age of needing fake IDs.
Yelchin, who gave a memorable performance when he was a child in “Hearts in Atlantis,” has matured into a first-rate comic actor with a remarkable range and a sense of fearlessness. He embraces his character’s quirks without going overboard.“Charlie Bartlett” does fall shy of greatness, but the filmmakers deserve a little credit for trying to reach it.