If a good rule of thumb is that the average generation clocks in at around twenty-five years, then it’s almost too delicious to note that 22 years after Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — the definitive Gen X high school movie — comes the next great, generation-defining high-school hero. His name is Charlie Bartlett, and “oh, he’s very popular. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads… they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.”
That’s a school secretary describing Ferris, in that 1986 film, and the same could be said about the Millennial Charlie, played by the surely-headed-for-stardom Anton Yelchin (House of D, Taken; he’ll portray Ensign Chekov in the upcoming Star Trek reboot), who hadn’t yet been born when Ferris played hooky. In fact, it’s easy to imagine that Charlie could well be the son of Ferris and his girlfriend, Sloane. Dad is absent from Charlie’s life for reasons we don’t understand till quite a way into the film but that are oh-so Ferris-ish when we do learn about them, and mom, Marilyn (Hope Davis [Infamous, American Splendor], in a cunningly clever performance), is absent in her own way, too, more pal to her son than parent, and more adrift in her own world in which she is constantly buzzed on wine or prescription meds than she is attuned to her son. She’s Sloane a couple decades on and even more bored with life than she was in high school. Marilyn is nice and she’s funny and she’s a friend to Charlie, but that’s not what he needs.
Charlie gets what he needs at school: he is not at all one to cut class. Why would he, when he can effortlessly make his classmates — all of them: the aggressive punks, the sweet special-ed kids, the cheerleaders, the jocks, the goths — love him? Charlie’s starting a new school, a public school very different from all the many, many ritzy private schools he’s been expelled from, and he’s eager to make his name. And he can do that because he knows that what he needs, what his peers need, doesn’t come out of the bottles of Ritalin and Prozac their misguided parents and the doctors they take their kids to are all too eager to pour down their throats. Charlie got thrown out of all those schools because he was too good at fulfilling the needs of his peers that their parents ignore, and now he discovers that he’s very good at being ad-hoc shrink to their anxieties and dilemmas and crises. He’s the only one listening, and that’s all they want.
Not that Charlie’s above passing around pills, too, if his diagnoses seem to call for it. Like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Charlie Bartlett becomes, in its exploration of the troublemaker who’s so attuned to his generation that he exemplifies all that defines it, a satire on how that generation was shaped by its elders. And this one is awash in mood-altering pharmaceuticals — who needs illegal drugs when you can simply take speed that’s been trademarked and marketed and corporatized and prescribed to you? Charlie Bartlett — the feature debut of both film editor turned director Jon Poll and scriptwriter Gustin Nash — isn’t merely Ferris Bueller on drugs. It’s a head-shaking cry against the attitude that has transformed, a turn of generations on, Ferris’s freespirited antiauthority wisecracking and creative entrepreneurship into a psychiatric verdict, a problem that needs to be fixed, a character flaw to be permanently excised from a young person’s psyche.
Ferris had Principal Rooney; Charlie has Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr. [Lucky You, Zodiac], as grounded and sad and dynamic as he always is), as determined to stop Charlie’s denial of adult supremacy as Rooney was Ferris’s, but it’s here, really, where Charlie Bartlett defines itself as itself, and won’t brook any cheap comparisons to other films. It’s in Charlie’s relationship with Gardner — an extension of Charlie’s tentative romance with the principal’s daughter, Susan (the lovely Kat Dennings: The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Raise Your Voice) — where the film deepens its black comedy into something that might be called black drama appropriate to the underlying seriousness of its intentions. Through Gardner — who also could be Ferris twenty years on, if Ferris had gone in a different direction — comes a sense that the screwed-up-ness of Charlie’s elders is no more a joke that that of Charlie and his peers is, and a hope that the generation gap can be bridged.