Despite repeated use of "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out," Charlie Bartlett is no Harold and Maude, but the latest high-school dramedy proves likeable enough in its own right. As the song says, "There's a million ways to go," which may not sound very profound to an entrenched adult, but tells a truth about the infinite crossroads of high school. Given the many paths to pursue in a quest to win friends and influence people, it's easy to see why some teens dangerously act out, overachieve their way to ulcers, or withdraw into social paralysis.
Jon Poll's feature debut--after years as an editor (the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents films) and producer (The 40 Year Old Virgin)--honors the neuroses of high school while also holding out the hope every teen needs that "if you find a new way/You can do it today." As in one of Frank Capra's seriocomic picaresques, Charlie Bartlett's corny audacity of hope comes after plenty of struggle. And if, like Charlie, Gustin Nash's first-time screenplay flounders a bit, Poll's steady editorial hand guides it home.
Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a high-schooler who just wants to be liked, at any cost. "Maybe there's more to high school than being well-liked," says his alcoholic mother (Hope Davis), though "nothing comes to mind." When Charlie discovers that dispensing pharmaceuticals will make him a high-school hero, he becomes the campus Dr. Feelgood, but quickly learns that there are better ways to help his newfound friends and earn love with the principal's no-bullshit daughter (Kat Dennings).
The film's success owes largely to a mischievous, star-making performance by Yelchin. The teenage actor gets to bounce off the walls clad only in tighty-whities, deliver a fictional monologue about getting his first period (from Corduroy Seville's "Misadventures of a Teenage Renegade"), and dispense armchair psychiatry (with a toilet for his armchair), and he's abetted by fine work from Davis, Dennings, Robert Downey Jr. and, as a mohawked bully, Tyler Hilton. The theatrical gags and Bartlett's out-of-step style (including wearing the crested blazer from his last, private school onto public-school grounds) conjure Rushmore, as does Downey Jr.'s untrustworthy mentor role as the ineffectual principal who's also a concerned, and therefore empathy-challenged, father.
After hitting a satirical stride in the film's first hour, Poll allows emotional sincerity to balance the outrageous plot. Bartlett's amoral quest to be liked and tendency to get a kick out of courting trouble need to be balanced. It's okay to spend a couple of hours with Ferris Bueller if you can recognize he's kind of an asshole; for the rest of us, it's comforting to watch a young man learn a lesson--especially while becoming his fullest self instead of cravenly bowing to arbitrary authority.
[For Groucho's interview with Jon Poll, click here.]