Written for my COMM100 class (Fall semester 2009) in November 2009, as a film review assignment.
“My name is Charlie Bartlett!” the adolescent protagonist exclaims in the opening scene.
Charlie may fall along the lines of the slightly dorky, eccentric, smartass teenage boy, however the character offers more than the shell of the nerd-cool trend of today. The charming and clever Charlie, played with the perfect balance of wit, articulation and vulnerability by Anton Yelchin, has a mature perspective on life, directly caused by his estranged father’s prison sentence for tax evasion and his mother’s consequent shift from reality, and Charlie’s new responsibility to take care of his mother.
Despite being not-all-there, Marilyn Bartlett, lovably and endearingly portrayed by Hope Davis, raises another point, adding to the list of heavy themes that this deceivingly lighthearted film touches on: “Well, maybe there’s more to high school than being well liked.” “Like what, specifically?” “Nothing comes to mind…”
This oddly insightful realization of high school society in the opening five minutes of the movie sets the tone that this film, by first-time director John Poll, will not just be a “Ferris Bueller” knock-off.
The refreshing cast is a major factor in giving “Charlie Bartlett” it’s special edge. In an ironic casting, Robert Downey Jr. convincingly plays Mr. Gardener, the drained alcoholic principal, a former U.S. History teacher who lost his passion for education between the rebellious student body and boring bureaucratic procedures.
Kat Dennings defends her title as reigning indie movie queen, and brings her unique, old Hollywood, wonderful quality to this film as Charlie’s love interest Susan Gardener and (to complete the conundrum) the principal’s daughter.
Tyler Hilton, whose only other major gig is embodying the King of Rock in the Academy Award winning “Walk the Line,” showcases his acting skills as Murphy Bivens, the resident tough guy who can immediately be pegged to morph into the romantic softy he really is after he works as the braun to Charlie’s brains.
Bartlett’s curious experiment with ritalin climaxes in a fantastic montage set to a peppy jazz piano piece, involving multiple pills, frantic running around an empty swimming pool, and concluding in Charlie frolicking through the streets in his skivvies at nighttime shouting “Wake-up sleepyheads! My name is Charlie Bartlett and I am not alone!”
His apprehension by the cops after coming down from his ritalin trip inspires Bartlett to manipulates his easy access and he creates a prescription drug dealing/therapy session scheme in which he thoughtfully acquires the medication his peers seek, and gives somewhat obvious advice like, “One of our duties as teenagers is to occasionally piss off our parents.”
In one of the highlight scenes of the movie, Bartlett auditions for the school drama, Shakespeare’s Henry V, with a hilarious monologue from the fictional “Misadventures of a Teenage Renegade.” The versatile Yelchin proves his comedic chops by flawlessly delivering the feminine monologue about when she entered womanhood—and believably so—never cracking a smile or stifling a laughter once.
Behind the humor, there are some pretty deep themes that give the movie substance and set it apart from the typical high school flick. Both Charlie and Susan have to cope with how it feels to have “one parent ditch and the other one lose their mind,” and the slim possibility of turning out “even remotely functional” after living in such a situation. Suicide is incorporated as means to portray the intensity that the feeling of belonging at least somewhere in high school is so crucial to the students. Substance abuse is incorporated in the plot, whether with drugs (Charlie’s ditzy mother) or alcohol (the deeply troubled principal), but not in the the way it typically is. This time, the negative side of substance abuse is not with the health effects on the user, but the severe emotional effects on the user’s loved ones.
The theme of social acceptance is the foundation of this movie, where everything one another does is fueled by the desire to be liked and fit in. Murph and Charlie share a poignant exchange that exemplifies the vicious cycle of high school society. When Charlie asks, “So why’d you stop doing the school play?” Murph responds in a moment of reluctant self-awareness, “I kept getting my ass kicked by people like me.”
Outside of the plot, “Bartlett” proved to have major motion picture quality, while still having the heart and charm of an indie flick. The jazzy, bluesy piano score lends to the quirky and peppy feel of the movie, matching the personality of Charlie himself.
The sets allowed the scenes to come to life, and fit with the vibe of the characters. The Drive-In Club especially had it’s own awesome atmosphere and the student lounge was personalized (or vandalized?) in a totally believable way that compliments the student body.
In the scene where the student-led night protest is broken up by police, the essence of youth rebellion is captured by the unsteadied camera shots backed by the upbeat, angsty “Oh Yeah” by the Subways.
Despite being often compared to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Charlie Bartlett” plays by it’s own rules and delves much deeper into serious matters. But, as Marilyn Bartlett reminds Charlie in one of her sparse moments of clarity, not everything in life needs to be taken seriously, and having a bit of fun is important. “You are just a kid, Charlie. You understand that, right?”