For no apparent reason save their rapid appearance on Netflix, I’ve been devouring large quantities of turn of the millennium teen movies. While many have charmed and entertained me, most tend to fall in line and preach the same kind of message. Popularity is a sham, inner beauty is what matters, yada yada…
Then, after the tragic accident that claimed the life of Anton Yelchin, I took a detour to the mid-2000s for “Charlie Bartlett.” It was one of the actor’s first of far too few star turns, and despite my professed fandom for Yelchin, it remained a blind spot for me. That all changed within hours of learning he was no longer with us.
And wow, what a refreshing break this was – heck, is – from most high school movies. “Charlie Bartlett” tackles a key aspect of today’s youth culture that has been elided or entirely omitted from movies to date: overprescription. Though I thankfully never needed drugs to help with my mood or focus, I know plenty of people who struggled to find the right balance of medication. I also know a fair share who used those same pills for less than noble purposes. This important corrective to a whitewashed narrative makes for an ideal “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”
Yelchin’s titular character possesses a lethal combination of access to such stimulants and the brazen gall to resell them to students at his new high school. Thanks to his wealthy and largely absent mother, Charlie essentially has a family pharmacist to prescribe anything he wants. Armed with an outsized self-confidence, he settles into his role as the benevolent campus drug dealer with ease after getting largely rejected upon first foray into his latest private school.
Charlie could easily have devolved into a snarky, sniveling jerk or just become insufferable to watch as he goes more Walter White on us. But that’s not the case at all; in fact, quite the opposite occurs. Yelchin makes Charlie more humane with each passing scene as he becomes increasingly aware of the deeper psychological needs of the student body. He is always present in a scene – listening, responding and playing off the other actors. Yelchin clearly did not just memorize lines to be shot in close-up. He was there to make the other actors, and the film itself by extension, the best they could be. Here, he succeeded wildly.