The teenage rebel is such an iconic figure in cinema, one verging on cliche, you would think that smart filmmakers would steer clear at all costs. Fortunately, writer Gustin Nash and director Jon Poll, each making his feature debut, are perhaps too new to their jobs to be smart.
Consequently, we have a fresh, provocative, surprising take on this figure in "Charlie Bartlett." The film certainly hits the anticipated areas of teen angst, alienation, loneliness, disenchantment and drug use. But the makers maintain a comic touch, preferring keen observation and even irony to cynicism and despair.
Indeed, the film could be accused of being overly optimistic in the many neat resolutions of its characters' problems if it were not for the filmmakers' insistence in maintaining a veneer of fictional wish-fulfillment, a kind of wink to the audience that it would take an unlikely and sagacious teen like Charlie Bartlett to perform so many miracles. And even one of his miracles backfires badly and nearly tragically.
This whip-smart comedy was postponed from its original August slot for a Feb. 22 opening. For the film to score with audiences looking for a youth movie with savvy and sass, much will depend on the critical reception plus word-of-mouth.
Like Holden Caulfield, Charlie (Anton Yelchin in a possibly career-altering role) gets kicked out of a fancy prep school at the beginning of the story. But his reaction is quite different. He accepts his punishment -- he was manufacturing fake IDs on a large and highly profitable scale -- but remains cheerfully optimistic about his prospects even when his wealthy mother (Hope Davis) has no other choice than to put him in public school. He already has been kicked out of nearly every private school worth mentioning.
Charlie doesn't know how he fits into the world, but he is determined to fit. He is a natural-born schemer but understandably uncomfortable with the genes he might have inherited. His dad -- we find out much later -- is doing time for one of his schemes, and his mom is not, as they say, dealing with a full deck. So it is he who must take care of her rather than the other way around.
The first day at the new school starts like so many other teen movies where the new kid gets a rough treatment. But what sets this one apart is how our Charlie responds. He makes the class bully, Murphey (Tyler Hilton), his partner in a pharmaceutical business he develops. For Charlie has discovered a quick cure-all for many of his fellow students' life problems: He dispenses Ritalin, Prozac and other make-it-go-away pills to the school' populace, medicine he can so easily score because his mom maintains family shrinks on a standby basis.
Charlie sets up shop in the boys' restroom, where he lends an ear to the myriad problems of low self-esteem and desire for popularity that so many classmates feel. Two people take notice of his own sudden spike in popularity: the school's disconnected principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) and the principal's daughter, offbeat beauty Susan (Kat Dennings), who is drawn to Charlie's sunny personality.
The duel between the principal, under increasing pressure from the school superintendent to maintain control over an increasingly out-of-control student body, and the rebellious Charlie and how this impacts his budding romance with Susan is the main story line. However, the film touches on the lives of many students in often poignant ways, including the bully with a well-disguised softer side, a most unpopular, suicidal kid (Mark Rendall) and a cheerleader (Megan Park) whose sexual availability covers up her deep insecurities.
Yelchin delivers one of those performances that pop eyes. He is old and wise and yet a kid. He is in constant motion but never out of focus. He hits every comic beat without sacrificing any of the seriousness of the issues and character dilemmas strewn throughout the story. He carries the movie on his shoulders yet shares every scene with fellow actors superbly. It's a breakthrough role.
Among the adults, Downey and Davis are wonderful, offering soul-searing looks at human frailty and disenchantment that comes with age. Dennings shares many tender moments with Yelchin, allowing the natural chemistry between these young actors spark the romance within the movie.
The Canadian-based production is aces, with the school and homes having a lived-in look that so seldom permeates teen movies.
MGM and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment present an Everyman Pictures/Texon Entertainment/Permut Presentations production
Director: Jon Poll
Screenwriter: Gustin Nash
Producers: David Permut, Barron Kidd, Jay Roach, Sidney Kimmel
Executive producers: William Horberg, Jennifer Perini, Trish Hofmann, Bruce Toll
Director of photography: Paul Sarossy
Production designer: Tamara Deverell
Music: Christophe Beck
Co-producers: Steve Longi, Gustin Nash
Costume designer: Luis Sequeira
Editor: Alan Baumgarten
Charlie Bartlett: Anton Yelchin
Principal Gardner: Robert Downey Jr.
Marilyn Bartlett: Hope Davis
Susan Gardner: Kat Dennings
Murphey Bivens: Tyler Hilton
Kip Crombwell: Mark Rendall
Len Arbuckle: Dylan Taylor
Whitney: Megan Park
Running time -- 96 minutes
MPAA rating: R