Admittedly, Charlie Bartlett (2007) is not a movie with which many are familiar. That is a bit of a shame. It is one of the first big breaks for a talented actor whose life was cut tragically short, Anton Yelchin, who plays the title character. It has a personal favorite, Kat Dennings, as the main female lead Susan Gardner. It is a good story, too, though I cringe at some of the less than morally upright aspects of it. These days, one might label it an “honest look” at high school life, as if the main motivation for every teenager is to act out in every conceivable way. While I do not care for some parts of the story, it nonetheless lands in the right place, and that counts for something.
The eponymous character in Charlie Barlett dreams of being adored by a large crowd of his peers. In reality, he goes about earning their affections in less than ideal ways. At the exclusive boarding school he attends, he has taken to creating fake identification cards for his classmates so that they can purchase the substances that kids of that age always seem to want to obtain. His mother, Marilyn Bartlett (Hope Davis), meets with the principal, and is informed that Charlie is being expelled. She does not get mad. Instead of grounding him, she sends him to public high school. In spite of his well-meaning attitude, his prep-school attire earns him derision from most, and a beating from school bully Murphy Bivens (Tyler Hilton). When he comes home with a black eye, Marilyn sends him to his family’s therapist, who they have on call. Based on what Charlie tells the mental health professional, he prescribed Ritalin. It is probably the wrong medicine as it turns him into a hyper-active, but extremely focused maniac. He experiences all these crazy episodes after taking a few days off from school. When he gets back, he decides that he has to do something about Murphy. Charlie’s idea is to form a business with the tough guy to sell Ritalin to any interested parties at school. They make their first couple hundred bucks from the school dance, and it is the beginning of Charlie’s popularity. Yet, he is not one of those cool guys who has time only for those on an even social standing as himself. One day, he is approached by Kip Crombwell (Mark Rendall), a social outcast who is having a struggle with fitting in at school. He is afraid to tell his parents about his problems, but goes to Charlie because Kip heard about the Ritalin. Charlie asks Kip to describe what the troubled youth is going through, and from this is born a new venture. Charlie begins seeing other students in the bathroom, jotting down their symptoms, and taking them to various mental health professionals to obtain the drugs they prescribe based on the symptoms he tells them. Murphy is his partner. Charlie is doing quite well for himself, even developing a relationship with Susan, the daughter of Principal Nathan Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.). What changes everything is when Kip, who continued to have social anxieties, attempts to overdose on the pills Charlie had obtained for him. The drugs are traced to Charlie, and Nathan goes to see the young man at his house. Charlie feels awful about the situation, and vows to put an end to his illicit activities. He then goes to see Kip, and agrees to get Nathan to allow the drama club to put on a play that Kip had written. Even so, the suspicion lingers with Charlie. While picking Susan up for a date, Nathan sees Charlie handing his daughter a pharmacy bag. Thinking that it has illegally obtained pills in it, he angrily accosts them, and Charlie lashes out and punches the older man. Susan then throws the bag at his feet, which contains nicotine gum to try to get her to stop smoking. Later that evening, there is a rally held at the school to get them to take down the security cameras that had been installed in the student lounge. The students see this as a major invasion of their privacy. Charlie shows up there, but tries to calm the crowd. Unfortunately, this is also roughly the time that Nathan arrives with the school superintendent and the fire and police departments. Charlie is arrested almost immediately, and his peers respond by trashing the student lounge, prompting the superintendent to fire Nathan. After getting out of jail, Charlie visits Susan, who is about to be in Kip’s play, and wonders where Nathan is. She says that her dad is home and that she does not care, though it is evident she feels otherwise. Charlie decides to go to the Gardner residence and finds Nathan on his deck, drunk and holding a handgun. Nathan blames Charlie for all the bad things that have happened. It then looks as if Nathan is going to shoot himself in the head, but Charlie misreads the situation. In rushing at Nathan, he ends up taking a nasty spill and falling into the pool unconscious. Nathan then has to rescue the boy, and they make amends. They then go to the play together, and a montage of happy endings closes the film.
There are parts of Charlie Bartlett that are funny, and others that are tragic. My Catholic perspective, as usual, will focus on the tragic aspects. Much of this has to do with Charlie himself. The film suggests that his attention seeking behavior is the result of his father being in jail, and his anger over not having dad in his life. I do not wish to simply bill Catholicism as a coping mechanism, but it is a handy way of dealing with life’s challenges. One of the ways in which mental health professionals help others is through group therapy. Knowing that there are others going through similar difficulties, that you are not alone, helps. When you understand that Jesus faced it all, too, and is with you through your own issues is best, and something that is used when dealing with substance abuse. Charlie comes to a number of realizations along these lines, even if faith plays no part in them. The most pertinent one is when he finally admits that he is just a kid with many of the same problems as those he is trying to help. That, too, is tied to faith, and a first step towards God often takes us letting go of our desire to control everything around us. We try so hard to be what others want us to be, which is a left-handed way of wanting control. Instead, God loves us, the real, unvarnished us that even ourselves do not completely know. To his credit, Charlie is trying to help people be themselves, even if it takes him a while to admit to his own issues.
Fun fact: Charlie Bartlett is the first film appearance for the rapper we know today as Drake. Aside from that, this one is a tough one to sell to my fellow Catholics and Christians. The characters do not seem at all phased by their youth and desire to consume illegal substances. At one point, Marilyn verbalizes the error that comes to mind when watching these activities: she blames herself for this behavior because she treated Charlie as an adult. These are kids who are trying to act like adults, and that is problematic. Yet, the film works because this is precisely what Charlie realizes by the end.