Film: Charlie Bartlett, CineCentre: ***

2008-02-18 00:00

The ‘doctor’ is in: lead performances lift quirky high school comedy

ANTON Yelchin looks like a chess player — sensitive, a bit nerdy — and he has a squeaky voice. He’s making a career of smart, odd teenagers, first in the weird and rather short-lived TV series Huff, then in Alpha Dog and Fierce Creatures.

Now, in Charlie Bartlett, his character is the distillation of all that has come before. Charlie Bartlett has been thrown out of several private schools and has returned to live at home and attend the local public high school.

Home is a mansion with his depressed and medicated mother, and school is a standard American high, with the usual film set of types — stoners, jocks, cheerleaders, skate boys, slightly gothy girls.

After Charlie, not understanding the culture of such a place, gets beaten up on his first day, his mother consults her on-call psychiatrist, whose response to Charlie’s confession that he daydreams in class is to prescribe Ritalin, with the instruction that if it helps him focus, he obviously needs it.

But the Ritalin sends Charlie on a crazy high — and gives him an idea. He recruits his tormenter as a business partner and they sell the Ritalin at the school dance.

After he is approached by a depressed and lonely kid prone to panic attacks, Charlie researches his problems, presents them to the shrink, gets prescribed anti-depressants and passes them on to his schoolmate, after a therapy session in the boys’ toilets.

Soon he is counselling half the school and prescribing pills he has been given by a string of doctors.

But Charlie isn’t the only struggling misfit at the school — the principal (Robert Downey jnr) is a bored drunk out of his depth trying to control a pack of kids. His daughter is the drama club president Charlie is drawn to, and man and boy clash over the girl.

Charlie’s extracurricular activities soon hit a speed bump, and he has to find another outlet for his talents.

There is quite a bit to like in Charlie Bartlett, but the story lacks focus and the ending is that usual “everyone finally understands each other” moment that films love but that is far removed from reality.

If Yelchin wasn’t so appealing as Charlie, with his ability to understand his peers’ problems and his creative solutions, and if Downey’s soft Saint Bernard eyes and addict’s persona (not much of an acting stretch there) didn’t make the principal a sympathetic character, Charlie Bartlett would be lame. As it is, it’s likeable enough, but unmemorable.

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