Charlie Bartlett
February 19, 2008

If you get a chance to see Charlie Bartlett, go! I just got back from a free preview, and I would have happily paid money for it on the way out. It opens this Friday, February 22, and it’s a wonderful teen comedy/drama.

Charlie Bartlett poster

It’s Ferris Bueller meets Pump Up the Volume, only with a modern, deeper take on the problems of teen life. Charlie is a privileged kid who winds up going to public school. He only wants to be liked, and he finds that the way to achieve popularity is to serve as unofficial shrink. Given today’s state of mental treatment, that also means handing out drugs: Xanax, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, all those handy mood helpers. It’s funny, but it’s also quite pointed.

I’d never before heard of Anton Yelchin, who plays the title character, but he’s amazing. His character could have seemed glib or helpless, but he’s got such charm and vulnerability that he’s a marvel to watch. He fully kept my attention for the entire film, without ever descending into cliché, even during a requisite drunk scene.

Speaking of drunk, it’s a tad odd watching Robert Downey Jr. (as the biggest name involved) starring in a film about chemical assistance (although the movie’s about a lot more than that). Then again, who better to know the pitfalls and temptations of addictive behavior? (I love Charlie’s t-shirt: “People like you are the reason people like me need medication.”)

Hope Davis plays Charlie’s disconnected mother, and one of the film’s subtexts is a problem that I’ve seen firsthand: what happens to kids when their parents treat them like peers? When adults aren’t capable of behaving maturely, they wind up taking their kids’ childhoods from them by forcing the kid to be more responsible than they should have to be. She’s darn funny, though. It’s almost a “be careful what you wish for” situation; she seems like she’d be a way cool mother until the complications reveal themselves.

Who else? There’s a bully (Tyler Hilton), a problem Charlie handles creatively, and the girlfriend (Kat Dennings), who has the glamour and self-possession of a brunette Veronica Lake. Oh, and the song “If You Want to Sing Out Sing Out” becomes important, which led KC and I to wonder if the current generation still thinks of Harold and Maude as a cult film, or if it’s been forgotten. There are some interesting similarities between the two movies, both featuring a well-off boy finding creative, out of bounds ways to cope.

8 Responses  
todd dezago writes:  

hi, johanna!

sharon and i were watching steven spielberg’s “taken” on disc tonight (at a friend’s insistence) and i kept saying that i’d seen that kid in something else since then. we turned off the dvd, and were met with anton yelchin in an ad for charlie bartlett. i’m sure he’s been in other things, but that’s all i know…
movie looks good–and now on YOUR recommendation…
thanks for the great review(s)!!

Dave writes:  

My wife’s cousin, who just turned 30 a few days ago, claims “Harold and Maude” is one of her favorite movies. I can’t tell if she’s sincere or if it’s an affectation. I CAN tell you that I made the same claim when I was 20 (kinda creepy now that I think about it, 20 years later) and that it was definitely an affectation. It wasn’t so much that I liked it as I sensed there was something subversive about being into the cult movies of the previous generation (How old is Bud Cort now?) while heaping disdain on whatever was popular at the time.

So, the 30-year-old cousin… I suspect she is not what you mean by the “current generation.” If you mean today’s 20-year-olds, I suspect it’s been forgotten. How does a kid even find out about “cult films” today? When I was a kid, I was most influenced by the offerings at the local art-house cinema, (which was one of the few places I could kill a few hours on a free evening before I could get into bars)and the hacky, fanzine-style writing of the film critics in the local free newsweekly (these people have all taken up residence in cyberspace now – not slamming bloggers as a group but we all know how hard it is to separate the wheat from the chaff).

There are so many more entertainment options today and so many more points of access that there are fewer and fewer common denominators today. I used to see the same regulars at the art-house cinema I frequented in high school and you could bet that they had all seen “Harold & Maude,” “Pink Flamingos,” etc. Would the same be true today?

Johanna writes:  

Bud Cort was the little old man in Dogma, by the way, so he’s up there. And you make excellent points about venues for cult films; the only dedicated outlet I’m aware of is TCM’s Friday nights, and what kid wants to admit watching that channel? I agree, it’s harder to find shared entertainments throughout our culture.

David Oakes writes:  

Yeah, Bud Cort is “up there” in “Dogma”. Definitely.

As to modern culture fracturing shared entertainment, “Cult” films have exactly the opposite problem. There is no reason to be part of the keepers of true knowledge if even the unwashed masses have the same access. When “Rocky Horror” is shown late on FOX, dressing up for a Midnight Matinee loses some of it’s cache.

Chris G. writes:  

Roger Ebert’s review of “The Life Aquatic” has a wonderful aside about Bud Cort to the effect of “…Zissou, accompanied by a bond company stooge (Bud Cort — so THAT’S what happened to him!)…”

velma writes:  

To Dave, this is a bit late but, I LOVE Harold and Maude, and I turned 20 this January! I think that as an artist, “cult classics” have been thrust upon me. In fact, no one I hang out with hasn’t seen the movie, as well as some other classics, like The Birds, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and The Graduate. A LOT of people I know my age love these movies! In fact, the classes on filmography and movies in my high school showed several of these movies, all in fact except for Rocky, with obvious reasons xD!

My friends and I often catch ourselves singing the time warp, and also, I often find myself complaining about the repetitive use of “Scarboro Fair” in The Graduate! It’s irritating!

Regardless, I feel like in no way are these movies out of reach to anyone in my generation. They’re very accessible and timeless, so the allure doesn’t fade as time goes by.

Also, several, several people I know, including myself, have seen and loved many an Audrey Hepburn feature, even the rarely talked about Two For The Road. ^_~

velma writes:  

LOL, “in fact” much? Too early for me today.

Easy A » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] I was reminded of the overlooked Charlie Bartlett. In that film, the lead gets himself in trouble trying to help out his classmates with mood […]


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