I had high hopes for this movie. On the surface, it seemed like it was moving away from the mainstream trend for high school comedies to be extended exercises in gross out humour for stereotyped characters. It appeared to be taking its cues more from Rushmore than American Pie, plus it had Robert Downey Jr.
It starts off well, with Charlie (Anton Yelchin) putting a fresh spin on the high school rebel by being a spoiled, trust fund baby. His rise from dorky outsider to Mister Popularity by taking advantage of his psychiatrist’s willingness to dish out prescriptions is fodder for some great comic moments and even the obligatory romantic sub plot is engaging. Up until the half way point, Charlie Bartlett works as an irreverent, subversive teen comedy, but then comes a moment that changes Charlie’s character and the film as a whole, shifting it into the realms of coming of age drama. Unfortunately, the event this hinges on doesn’t really do its job and the rest of the film’s running time presents an uneven experience.
Yelchin gets all the best lines as the hero and he delivers them in a mischievous dead pan that is missed as he matures into a more moral person. However, the best performances in this high school movie come from the adult cast. Downey Jr is great as the principal and father of Charlie’s girlfriend, especially when he plays off his reputation in a story about drug abuse. Hope Davis as Charlie’s mother starts off as almost a Stepford wife and plays it well for laughs, but as the story progresses she allows just the right levels of emotion to seep through.
One of the smartest high school comedies to come out in a long time, Charlie Bartlett could have been better still. Its subject matter, the over medication of adolescents, is a modern issue that is yet to be exploited by cinema and this film backs off when it has the chance to truly tackle it. Instead, it swerves away from its strengths mid story to lay out a generic ‘happy ending where the main character learns something’ conclusion. Despite this, it's frontloaded with enough laughs to make it a fun watch.