Starring: Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis
Directed by: Jon Poll (debut)
Written by: Gustin Nash (debut)
If anyone is trying to remember where they’ve seen actor Anton Yelchin, chances are you first spotted him in the 2006 teenage crime drama “Alpha Dog” as a kid who is kidnapped for a debt owned by his older brother. Although the film unsuccessfully tries to balance itself between hard-hitting biopic and care-free street speech, much of the well-acted true-life story comes in part from the young actors who give the movie its spotty emotional spark. If anyone does it the best, it’s Yelchin.
Here, the kid plays the titular character in “Charlie Bartlett.” Yelchin is a classic-looking talent reminiscent of Anthony Michael Hall in “The Breakfast Club” and Matthew Broderick in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” which is why he works so well as the extremely likable lead character. Problem is that “Barlett’ isn’t a John Hughes film and it’s evident Yelchin is starring in a first-time film for both the director (Jon Poll) and writer (Gustin Nash).
It’s not to say that “Bartlett” isn’t a worthy attempt. The story revolves around a prep high school student who finds his true calling in life when he appoints himself as a psychiatrist and prescription drug dealer at his new school.
When Charlie is expelled from his “nth” private institution for selling fake IDs to his classmates, his mother, Marilyn (Davis), who has some issues of her own, decides public education is her son’s final chance to clean up his act. Charlie isn’t a troublesome kid at all. Actually, he is respectful, friendly and an overall nice guy. But with some concerns in his home life (his father is incarcerated), he has no other choice than to express himself and draw attention in any way he can.
Peddling pills, which he has received from his shrink, from the boys bathroom quickly makes Charlie a popular person to know at his suburbia high school. Where he once was the dweeby new guy who wore a crested sports coat and was picked on by the rebellious bully, Charlie reaches iconic status on campus and has everyone’s head turning, especially alcoholic Principal Gardner (Downey Jr.), whose daughter Susan (Kat Dennings) he has started to date.
Although it manages to stay away from more of the obvious and shallow stereotypes that plague teenage comedies today, “Bartlett” really can’t decide what type of film it wants to be. As a quirky indie flick, it’s no “Rushmore.” As a laborious drama, the script doesn’t support its full intentions and leaves its characters scraping to project their personalities in the waning moments. Sadly, it doesn’t occur soon enough.
Who is Charlie Bartnett anyway? Yelchin might have his Natalie-Portman-by-way-of-“Garden State” moments, but there’s only so much a few eccentricities can uncover about our leading man.