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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008 01:39 am

An “A” for effort

Charlie Bartlett takes a fresh look at high-school hell

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Charlie Bartlett Running time 1:37 Rated R ShowPlace West
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Charlie Bartlett Running time 1:37 Rated R ShowPlace West

As a genre, the teen comedy would seem to be played out. Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off have achieved cult-classic status, and the American Pie movies and Superbad have taken the concept of teenage awkwardness into the 21st century — is there really anything left to say regarding that ring of hell called high school? Then comes Jon Poll’s Charlie Bartlett, a fresh take on an old theme that, though inconsistent, deserves an A for putting a meaningful, contemporary spin on this old subject. The title character, as played by Anton Yelchin, is a teen who’s far more mature in many ways than his peers but still unsure of how to navigate the waters of teen life. Charlie’s had to grow up fast: His father is in prison because of tax shenanigans, and his mother (Hope Davis) is more than willing not to delve too deeply into what’s really bothering her son. Though he’s quick with a comeback, he shows up for his first day of public schooling wearing a blazer from one of his many former prep schools, and before you know it the resident bully, Murphey (Tyler Hilton), has shown him who’s boss. Charlie, a bit confused at being so unpopular, sees a psychiatrist, who applies a catchall solution: Ritalin. Our hero takes the drug for a few days, then decides that he can put his prescription to better use and starts selling it to his peers. He takes things a step further by providing counseling as well, dispensing his wisdom in the boys’ bathroom. Through these efforts Charlie attains popularity. Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) is less than thrilled — and even less pleased when his daughter (Kat Dennings) falls for the teenage Freud. Constant, dramatic shifts in tone are Charlie Bartlett’s greatest weakness. Initially the film seems intent on lampooning every cliché in the teen-movie genre, but then it slips in a theme of psychotropic drug abuse by both physicians and patients — but does little with it other than point out rather heavy-handedly that this abuse can have tragic results. Poll is straining here to reach the heights of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, and though he does achieve that film’s irreverent tone at times, it is hardly consistent. The director is adept at rendering all of the stereotypical characters and themes of the genre but not fully able to lampoon or shed new light on them all just yet. What saves the film is Poll’s cast, who, for the most part, give shadings to their characters that Gustin Nash’s script fails to provide. Yelchin, a charmer, has us rooting for Charlie from the get-go. We can’t help but pull for this intelligent kid who finds a way to thrive in a hostile environment, and Yelchin is able to convince us that Charlie is genuine, lacking the air of condescension that caused me to keep Ferris Bueller at arm’s length. Davis is good as the mom who does her best to keep up appearances but is barely holding on, as if one more bad break would send her to pieces. Of course it comes as no surprise that Downey steals every scene he’s in. A drinker with more than a touch of paranoia, poor Gardner knows that he’s out of touch with his students and daughter but is at a loss as to how to remedy this. The actor’s manic sense of desperation is the film’s highlight. Charlie Bartlett is Poll’s first full-length feature and, as such, displays certain shortcomings. However, there are enough strong ideas here, rendered in a competent and at times inspired manner, that this filmmaker bears watching. My guess is that he’ll become more confident as he grows as an artist, much like his protagonist here.  
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