In the comic vein of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or “Rushmore,” frosh scribe Gustin Nash tosses out disposable moral lessons by the barrelful while editor-turned-helmer Jon Poll gleefully bats them over the fence in “Charlie Bartlett.” Rollicking story of a rich kid whose wildly successful bid for popularity has him playing drug-distributing shrink to an entire high school boasts pitch-perfect faceoffs between upstart Anton Yelchin and alcoholic principal Robert Downey Jr. that could fuel a chemistry lab. Skedded for Aug. 3 release, sweetly subversive pic offers a chancy box office alternative to by-the-numbers summer fare.
Yelchin’s adolescent Charlie Bartlett is an adorable, sincere — and slick — popularity-seeker. Introduced in the process of being kicked out of his umpteenth posh private school, this time for creating fake IDs (“Well, you have to admit they look very authentic,” mother Hope Davis admiringly remarks), Charlie is sent off to public school, sporting a Latin-mottoed blazer and leather attache case.
Unfazed by mockery, beatings and having his head shoved into the toilet, Charlie continues to make friendly overtures to pretty girls, bullies, the retarded, football heroes and nerds equally. Driven by a strange mix of curiosity, empathy and benign manipulation to figure out exactly what makes people tick, he easily ascends to the role of school psychiatrist, setting up his practice in the boy’s lavatory; he is greatly abetted by his access, via the family psychiatrist, to endless supplies of medications.
Charlie starts dating Susan (Kat Dennings), the daughter of Principal Gardner (Downey), whose move from iconoclastic history teacher to repressive bureaucrat has already driven him deep into the bottle. Soon the principal finds his professional and parental authority usurped by a fresh-faced teen with a “helpful” answer for everything.
As the link between Yelchin and Downey, Dennings packs less emotional ammo, but has a sensual sense of humor that almost fits the bill. Teen heartthrob Tyler Hilton is priceless as a Mohawk-coiffed bully who undergoes various transformations under Charlie’s tutelage.
Pic is chock-full of character-building epiphanies and precautionary warnings parents can comfortingly latch onto, if blind to the fact that few of the homilies really stick; none of them makes the same impression as Downey’s drunken, pistol-packing exhortation to never attack a gun-waving drunk. Nor, for that matter, can they hold a candle to the loopy TV-theme duets sung by Charlie and his mother, flawlessly executed in vintage jazz style.
Though the filmmakers no doubt believe that carelessly administered prescription drugs can be harmful, the sight of Charlie bouncing off the walls on Ritalin provides a joyous wallow in vintage Sennett-style overcranking.
Pic makes a strong case for a solid writer-director split, since Nash’s sententious-leaning script, passing through the anarchic energy of Poll’s direction, creates precisely balanced anomalies — like Charlie himself, and those lovely, multilayered exchanges between Downey and Yelchin.
Toronto-shot pic plainly profits from its transposed locations by the hiring of Canuck lenser Paul Sarossy: The same transparent intimacy, usually informing Atom Egoyan’s psychological labyrinths, is here placed in the service of clear-eyed comedy.