Anton Yelchin as Charlie Bartlett
Robert Downey Jr. as Mr. Gardner
Hope Davis as Marilyn Bartlett
Kat Dennings as Susan Gardner
Tyler Hilton as Murphey Bivens
Ishan Davé as Henry Freemont
Megan Park as Whitney Drummond
Jonathan Malen as Jordan Sunder
Jake Epstein as Dustin Lauderbach
David Brown as Officer Hansen
Richard Alan Campbell as Dr. Costell
Lauren Collins as Kelly
David Fraser as Dr. Jacob Kaufmann
Judah Katz as Coach
Directed by Jon Poll
A surprisingly strong addition to the high school comedy genre with more rounded characters and realistic situations than one normally gets, veering far enough away from the cliches to bring new ideas to a tired old genre.
After being kicked out of every private school in the area, Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is sent to a public high school by his wealthy overly-medicated mother (Hope Davis). There, Charlie must find new ways to make friends and become popular, doing so by offering advice and prescribing medicine to his fellow students. Charlie immediately gets under the skin of the school principal Mr. Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) but even more when he starts dating his daughter Susan (Kat Dennings).
There have literally been hundreds of high school comedies over the past few decades, so many that it's nearly impossible for any new offering to find its own identity, and in that sense, "Charlie Bartlett" might have some difficulty being seen as more than a throwback to John Hughes' "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is an industrious youth from wealth who always seems to be getting into trouble since his mother (Hope Davis) doesn't exert enough control over him since his father left the picture for reasons we'll discover later. After being expelled from his umpteenth private school, she sends Charlie to public school where he immediately gets caught up in the cliquish hierarchy of being the low man on the totem poll and an instant target for the school bully Murph (Tyler Hilton) due to his prep school attire, while becoming friendly with Susan, the daughter of the school principal (Robert Downey Jr.). Charlie's mother believes that therapy and medication is the answer to all problems, but Charlie establishes a new level of popularity after selling his prescribed ritalin to his classmates with Murph becoming his partner in crime.
On the one hand, the movie follows the usual high school formula with similarities to "Saved!," "Thumbsucker," "Mean Girls," "Heathers," "3 O'Clock High," but it also has its own distinct charm and personality, mostly coming in the form of Yelchin, who riffs and hams it up through the movie. Sure, when he gets excited, his whiny voice can get grating and hard to take over time, but he does a great job selling this character, offering equal doses of humor and pathos to the point where you can't help but like him, much like a young Tom Cruise or Matthew Broderick.
In possibly one of the better roles of his career, Robert Downey Jr. plays the school's alcoholic principal, nailing what made Paul Gleason and Jeffrey Jones so perfect in their respective '80s movies, but bringing more depth to the character than we often see from the principle in high school comedies. From dealing with a growing teen daughter to maintaining order at his school among students who listen more to Charlie than him, Downey nails this character, especially when he confronts his alcoholism--yes, there's some irony in there, which allows Downey some closure on that chapter of his life. In fact, Downey's very presence elevates the movie above normal Hollywood teen fare and he has some great scenes with Yelchin and with Katt Dennings ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") who plays his teen daughter. The same can be said for Hope Davis as Charlie's batty medicated mother, not a particularly original character, but Davis gives it the much-needed edge to make her scenes very funny. At times, the movie seems to be as much about the relationship between Downey and his daughter than Charlie and his mom, but the comparisons are there to be made for those who choose to delve deeper into the contrasts.
Dennings is cute but annoying at times and her romantic scenes with Yelchin are the weakest moments of the movie—yes, the young actor once again loses his virginity in this movie as he has in every other one of his movies. It's also odd that they'd cast an actress who clearly can't sing in a role that includes a subplot about her singing. On the other hand, the most pleasant surprise comes in the form of singer/songwriter Tyler Hilton as the bully Murph, a well-rounded role with a full story arc that deviates from the normal high school bully types.
"Charlie Bartlett" is an impressive debut from Jon Poll, who co-produced and edited some of Jay Roach's comedies, and he keeps things entertaining by creating an intricate series of subplots involving Charlie and the supporting characters. This isn't entirely a comedy, since it also deals with the real issues faced by today's teens, but it understands how to keep things light and entertaining without veering so far from reality that you're taken out of the story.
At times, the movie tends to get predictable and preachy and by the end, things go into far darker territory than one might expect after the light humor from earlier. For the most part, every scene adds something to the overall story rather than merely being filler, adding up to a movie that's far smarter than the genre normally delivers. The film's R-rating for drug use and teen sex is a shame, since it's the type of movie that teens will be able to relate to, and sadly those who might get the most out of it might not be allowed to see it.