A wanly charming throwback of a teen movie, "Charlie Bartlett" is a coming-of-age story about an oddball misfit who finally achieves the popularity that's eluded him for years by becoming his school's de facto shrink. This being the Prozac era (or is it the post-Prozac era already?), his services naturally encompass psychopharmacology, an enterprise in which he's unknowingly aided and abetted by psychiatrists who gleefully push prescription drugs on him.
Though it pokes at the hypocrisy of self-medicating adults prescribing anything (whether drugs or rules) to kids, "Charlie Bartlett" is neither cynical nor particularly satirical. Nor, thankfully, is it a sermon about the evils of prescription drugs. For the most part, it's an uneven if amiable and occasionally inspired comedy about getting through adolescence that hits some false notes along the way. Some of this is due to the fact that what screenwriter Gustin Nash and director Jon Poll clearly intend as homage sometimes tips the line into compulsive allusion. "Harold and Maude," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Rushmore" are all over "Charlie Bartlett" like a drunken prom date. "Harold and Maude" lends to the movie an arch, preserved-in-amber WASP style that includes a vintage Mercedes limo driven by a decrepit but game-for-anything driver and (oh yeah) a Cat Stevens song; "Ferris Bueller" and "Rushmore," the character's outsized influence over the student body and general moxie and entrepreneurial spirit.
Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a rich kid in the abstract, classic movie mode: a crested blazer-wearing lockjaw who likes to sing duets of the theme song from "All in the Family" with his mother, Marilyn (Hope Davis at her loopiest and flightiest), and carry an attache case to class. After getting expelled from his umpteenth prep school, Charlie is forced to attend the local public institution where his blazer and a cursory understanding of Latin directly earn him a swirly and a black eye. But after cleverly recruiting his tormentor, Murphey (Tyler Hilton), as his business partner and reselling his Ritalin at a dance, he soon has the entire student body lining up to unburden their souls and score some pharmaceuticals.
Charlie's unchallenged hegemony is threatened by Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), who also happens to be the father of Susan (Kat Dennings), the girl Charlie wants. Next to Yelchin's funny but somewhat erratic portrayal of Charlie, Downey's divorced former history teacher with a drinking problem is a black hole effortlessly sucking the movie into himself. And I mean that as a compliment.
You want to forgive "Charlie Bartlett" its obvious tributes because there's much about it to like. Downey's nearly catatonic principal is beautifully offset by Davis' impish dowager. (What she does with a sudden grin is nothing short of amazing.) And Nash and Poll's portrayal of teenagers is far more sensitive and nuanced than we're used to seeing these days. Dennings is touching as an adolescent girl navigating a treacherous situation; the relationship between Yelchin and Hilton is unexpectedly sweet; and as Kip, the suicidal anonymous kid, Mark Rendall stands out. But Poll never picks a tone to stick with, so the movie is neither quite naturalistic nor stylized enough, and Charlie's character vacillates between charming-soulful and creepy-weird. (Yelchin is no Matthew Broderick.) Ultimately, you want to like him a lot more than you actually do -- which, for an amateur shrink, is perhaps the surest sign to refrain from making it a day job.
"Charlie Bartlett." MPAA rating: R for language, drug content and brief nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. In wide release.