It’s not quite a comeback, but after a long period of schmaltzy misfires, it’s encouraging to see Rob Reiner once again directing a film set amid real, recognizable humans with real, recognizable issues in “Being Charlie.” An intriguing collaboration between the director and his son (Nick Reiner, who wrote the screenplay alongside Matt Elisofon), this study of an 18-year-old addict, struggling through rehab programs while his Hollywood-player father makes a run at politics, is clearly a personal one for the filmmaker, and that sense of investment — along with some of the more interestingly unpolished first-timer edges of the script — makes for a film that generally succeeds in spite of its formulaic underpinnings and loose ends. It seems unlikely to do more than modest business, but hopefully it represents a turning point in Reiner’s filmmaking trajectory.
Now 22, the younger Reiner went through numerous stints in rehab prior to his 18th birthday, and met future co-scripter Elisofon at one of them. As described in the film’s unusually forthcoming press materials, the two wrote several versions of the screenplay over several years, both clashing with and collaborating with the elder Reiner all the way, and the Oedipal tensions of the film’s construction are all over the finished product.
Here, we meet Charlie Mills (Nick Robinson) as he celebrates his 18th birthday in a suffocatingly religious Utah drying-out facility, only to blow the coop that night, smashing a stained-glass window and stealing Oxycontin from a friendly truck driver in the process. Arriving back in Los Angeles, he hitches a ride with best buddy Adam (Devon Bostick), a seemingly Teflon-coated former classmate who is still living the high life, and ventures back to his family’s palatial estate.
His father, David (Cary Elwes), clearly several years into an ineffectual tough-love approach toward his son’s battles, is a former action-movie star nearing the end of a close race for California governor, and his concern for Charlie’s treatment is inextricably entwined with his fear of some Charlie-centered bad press derailing his campaign. Telling Charlie he’ll face criminal charges for his antics in Utah unless he completes a full recovery program, David packs him off to a last-chance facility nearby, while Charlie’s mom (Susan Misner) argues for a bit more compassion.
Pitting as it does such elemental forces of human nature against one another in a dialogue-driven process, rehab makes for an inherently dramatic setting, which is perhaps why so many of “Being Charlie’s” scenes set in these facilities feel like something we’ve seen many times before. Charlie plays the sardonic troublemaker at the new facility, while fellow patients are mostly around to provide straightforward comic relief (one is a chronic masturbator, another communicates primarily through “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” quotes). The exception to this is Eva (Morgan Saylor), a similarly sardonic blonde who quickly forges a romantic bond with Charlie, even if the po-faced counselors disapprove.
Staging Charlie’s moment-of-truth treatment pivots alongside the tenser moments of David’s campaign initially seems too contrived a dramatic structure, and indeed it proves to be. Giving Charlie a love interest in rehab seems just as formulaic, yet their relationship plays out in a number of unexpected ways. As an empathetic counselor (Common) explains to Charlie, just as addiction can be a selfish condition, recovery often requires a degree of selfishness as well, and the acknowledgment that Charlie and Eva’s romance may actually be just as toxic as the seemingly unfeeling adults claim is one of the film’s strengths.
In contrast to the ruthlessly well-scrubbed moral correctness of several of his last films, it’s nice to see Reiner allow his primary characters here to behave in more messily human ways: smoking, swearing and occasionally disrobing throughout. Proving the old adage that stories become more universal the more they nail down the specifics, the most fleshed-out scenes take place in environments the filmmakers would seem to know best, like liberal Hollywood fundraisers and rich-kid college bull sessions.
Likewise, Charlie is at his least believable when he plays the standard James Dean-style rebel, and at his most when he indulges in more L.A.-specific behavior, particularly when he pursues his interest in becoming a standup comic. (In one early scene with Eva, Charlie introduces her to his heroes Moms Mabley and Richard Pryor; giving an 18-year-old an obsession with Baby Boomer comedians seems immensely unrealistic on first blush, and then you realize that’s precisely the kind of anachronistic quirk a kid raised by Rob Reiner might have.) Robinson turns in confident work with the role, especially when pitted against the casually funny Bostick, who does things like misappropriate the inscription on the gates of Auschwitz as an inspirational bromide.
Though he’s too old-school to completely forswear a few dramatically strong-armed moments — a montage set to Paul Simon’s “American Tune” is a bit on-the-nose — Reiner has clearly endeavored to go smaller and more natural here, keeping his actors in closer focus, and demonstrating a willingness to let the smaller, quieter moments be small and quiet. “Being Charlie” is far from a home run, but it’s the kind of solidly struck single after a string of strikeouts that can be just the thing to help set a veteran back on track.