It’s not hard to guess how director Jon Poll spent the ’80s: His first movie is an affectionate callback to “My Bodyguard,” “Risky Business,” and every high-school movie John Hughes ever made. But while “Charlie Bartlett” cheerfully wears all those influences on its sleeve, what matters most is that it wears them well.
When we first meet Charlie (Anton Yelchin), he’s getting kicked out of his umpteenth private school, this time for making fake IDs. He’s not a bad guy – in fact, he’s unshakably sweet – but he’s also pretty confused. His father is gone and his mother (Hope Davis) is too doped up to be much help, though she does offer her own sort of support. Mostly, this comes in the form of pharmaceuticals, which the family shrink is always happy to supply.
When Charlie is sent to public school, it’s clear he’s going to have to adapt, and fast. A rich kid in a small pond, he’s beaten up within minutes of his arrival. Desperate for acceptance, he presents school bully Bivens (Tyler Hilton) with a proposition. He’ll supply a steady stream of drugs, and Bivens will sell them. And there’s a bonus: along with the Ritalin and Xanax, Charlie will offer every student insights gleaned from years of therapy.
Soon things are going swimmingly – he’s so popular, he’s even dating the principal’s daughter (an appealing Kat Dennings). But that brings unwanted attention, and it’s not long before Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) is threatening to expose the deceptively mature Charlie for the insecure kid he actually is.
Poll encourages his lead to make the most of Gustin Nash‘s sharply funny script, resulting in a go-for-broke performance that’s bound to earn him attention. And while the 19-year-old Yelchin has been playing precocious naïfs for far too long, it’s usually in films that get little notice (“House of D,” “Fierce People,” “Alpha Dog”). If this proves to be his breakout role – and it very well may – it’ll be interesting to see what kind of grownup he’s ready to be.
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