Charlie Bartlett, which stars Robert Downey Jr., my favorite actor, and Anton Yelchin and Kat Dennings, two of my favorite young actors, and most of the case of Degrassi: The Next Generation, a television program that is near and dear to my heart, is kind of a perfect storm of Reihanness. Like a lot of you, I’m guessing, I always liked Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, though perhaps less than you’d think. The thing about Bartlett is its extraordinary generosity and humaneness.
Much of what I know, or think I know, about “the kids these days” comes from friends who are on the frontlines, grad students and junior faculty who wrestle with a generation that craves the approval of elders to a surprising, alarming degree. We’ve all heard about “helicopter parents,” etc., but I’ve seen colleagues and friends with children fielding half a dozen calls from their kids. I mean, I’m sure some parents are indeed “helicopter parents,” and then there are the parents who are eager to fly away yet find themselves tethered to extraordinarily needy (and, in fairness, very loving) children.
So Bartlett, like all of these movies, represents wish-fulfillment. Charlie’s dad is mysteriously not-there, for reasons that only become clear about halfway in. He craves popularity, like most adolescents, yet he goes about getting it in a very strange way: yes, he schemes, but not to exclude, or to climb over others to get to the top of the food chain. Rather, he schemes to make himself indispensable by simply being kind, by listening to children who feel ignored or badly misunderstood.
Charlie is, moreover, a lot more mature than many of the adults around him, including the likable yet half-shattered principal of the school, played by Robert Downey Jr. Charlie’s strangeness is a function of his sereneness. And though he loudly proclaims all the anxieties he shares with his growing numbers of acolytes, there is something saintly about it. What an odd, remarkable, likable kid, who uses his wealth and wits to create a “clique” that comes to encompass an entire school.
There are other movies in which the bully and the bullied join forces. In Bartlett, though, it happens in a particularly affecting and (almost) believable way. I’m not being very specific, mostly to encourage you to see the movie. All I’ll say is that I wish Charlie Bartlett had been in theaters when I was a kid.
I was also struck by the lesson, and I could be imagining things, about chemical dependency, which managed to be not even slightly preachy, and which intelligently weaved together pharmaceuticals and booze and the rage of a crowd. You come away from Charlie Bartlett wanting to be more in control of your life, and also wanting to be kinder, not least to your parents. The wish-fulfillment of most teen movies, and tween television, involves a world without adults, or in which adults are hilariously incompetent. Here we see imperfect adolescents and adults, bobbing and weaving around each other, all terrified of having their defensive barriers breached, and all fundamentally scared in the same ways.
I just read Stephen Holden’s lukewarm review, the only one I’ve read, and it occurs to me that the peripatetic nature of the movie was something I liked. This is not a clean, precise spectacle of a movie, like a Rushmore. It’s shaggy and it meanders at times. Threads are picked up and half-dropped. Even so, my sense is that it is truer to the experience of adolescence, and the way that home life, intimacy, and one’s evolving public persona interact and collide. My advice is: see it for yourself.
P.S.- As often happens, the comments are better than the post. Check out Freddie’s thoughts below.