Reviewers split over new teen flick ‘Charlie Bartlett’
February 28, 2008
Charlie Bartlett” sets itself against the same tired and boring high school backdrop as seen in every other stereotypical portrayal of the worst four years of pubescent life. Thankfully, this clichéd world of cliques and class schedules is presented through the eyes of Charlie Bartlett himself— eyes that view the world through Xanax-colored lenses as its inhabitants blow bubbles from Ritalin-flavored chewing gum. It’s this sense of medicated forgiveness that gives the movie its undeniable charm. That, and an infectious flaunting of cool from the young Anton Yelchin, who crackles like live wire as he pops electric life into the film.
Charlie Bartlett (Yelchin) has made a hobby out of getting expelled from every private school his spaced-out mother (Hope Davis) enrolls him in. Being jolted by the snapping sound of the camel’s back, and being unable to pay a big enough endowment to forgive her son’s transgressions, Mrs. Bartlett catapults Charlie right into the angst-ridden, bully-patrolled borderlands of public high school.
After surviving his pledge week of swirlies and initiations by fist, Charlie settles into a comfortable little nook among the tiled hallways. Seeing a chance to ride the express elevator up the popularity ladder, Charlie opens up a slapdash psychiatrist office in the boys bathroom, complete with the school’s toughest hombre as secretary.
These restroom indiscretions catch the eye of Principal Gardner (Robert Downey, Jr.), who fights to dethrone this new therapeutic messiah. While the principal tries to bring young Bartlett down, his curvaceous daughter, Susan (Kat Dennings), lifts him up with her own prescription of busty erotic elixir.
The narrative woven here may start off a simple pariah’s fairy tale, but this aggressively overused idea quickly takes backseat to a somewhat poignant expose on the false idolizing of role models and the abuse of that artificially granted power.
Charlie Bartlett is granted demigod status as he becomes the most popular, and therefore the most powerful, kid in school. Important to note here, though, is that Charlie realizes the danger of this power and thus admonishes it, urging his classmates to think for themselves instead of simply playing follow the leader.
It’s in this way that “Charlie Bartlett” reaches down from the screen to deliver a subversive slap in the face to those paying attention; I can almost hear Uncle Ben in the subtext: “with great power comes great responsibility!”
The caricatures that populate this amusement may be over-inflated in their emotions and actions, but this exaggeration mirrors a premise that blows itself out of proportion just enough to candidly frame its themes without insulting the intelligence of the viewer.
Charlie has lost his father. Out of that loss is spawned a deep-seeded need to help anyone he can, no matter the consequences of his uneducated actions. He plays Jesus Christ to teens 14-18, a savior for those around him who feel unheard.
The themes bandied about may appear superficial at first, but after reflecting on the Golden Calf celebrities of today, perhaps “Charlie Bartlett” isn’t just a fable for the adolescents it features.
Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.