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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Charlie Bartlett (review)

Ferris Wheels

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.

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MPAA: rated R for language, drug content and brief nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
  • Kris

    Now you’ve got me intrigued to see this movie. I went to see Juno last week and the trailer for this movie affected me much the same way Juno did. I really dislike any movie [like Bueller and to a large degree Juno, as well] where the central character is the plucky, snarky teenager who shows so much more wisdom and ability to act than all the pathetic, ineffective, screwed up adults around him/her. It’s a story scenario that’s really almost cliche by now and always stunk to me of pandering to teen ticket buyers. Beside not finding them particularly entertaining, I’ve also seen them as bordering on destructive for the almost overt approval they give for encouraging and supporting disrespectfulness and insolence in teen viewers, and doing nothing to exort this generation of parents become adults and show some spine to children instead of working so damn hard to see that their children regards them as ‘cool’. If this movie has more to say than ‘see the cool teen goof on the idiot adults’, I might be prompted to watch it.

  • Spencer

    You’ve intrigued me to see it as well, but I still have serious lingering doubts about the ethics of the film. How is it handled that a teen with no psychiatric training is both handing out prescriptions and offering an informal equivalent of therapy (but, from the trailers, even more directive than good therapy ought to be and thus even less ethical and more dangerous)? I sympathize with the above poster on the frequent vacuousness of teen movies, and one which displays just as much deep-down moral and ethical emptiness, as well as a snarky and “you’d-never-get-me” holiness, all while couching it in the semblance of sense could be very nasty indeed.

    As a counselor in training, this topic is of great concern to me– I hope it’s handled intelligently and responsibly. As an aside, myself as a participant in the field of psychology certainly hopes that the somewhat cavalier attitude you display toward misused and overdiagnosed psychoactive drugs does not preclude a very strong affirmation of their numerous positive effects.

    We’ll see what I think after I see the movie.

  • MaryAnn

    How is it handled that a teen with no psychiatric training is both handing out prescriptions and offering an informal equivalent of therapy

    Not as a lark, if that’s what you’re worried about. But Charlie has a lot more concern for his fellow students that the adults around them seem to.

    myself as a participant in the field of psychology certainly hopes that the somewhat cavalier attitude you display toward misused and overdiagnosed psychoactive drugs does not preclude a very strong affirmation of their numerous positive effects.

    Are you denying that psychiatric drugs — that all prescription drugs — are wildly overprescribed, that they are used as Band-Aids that mask symptoms (maybe) but don’t solve underlying problems? It’s doctors and the pharmaceutical industry that have the “cavalier attitude” about the proper use of drugs.

  • Spencer

    Thanks for replying, MaryAnn! I appreciate the comments and the discussion.

    It is a little to large of an issue to go into much depth in this medium, but let me say emphatically that I believe there is rampant overdiagnosing, overprescribing, and misuse in the fields of psychiatry and pharmaceuticals. Having said that unequivocally, I think it is also incumbent on a person to be cautious of an overreaching criticism and, while decrying the abuses of pharmaceuticals, allow for their beneficial effects. In fact, if these drugs are as much of a net negative as (if I am not mistaken) you seem to claim, then this puts even more serious doubt on the ethics of a movie which in any sense positively portrays a novice prescribing such drugs.

    These drugs are indeed not “cures”– something any responsible psychiatrist would offer as a disclaimer. However, a vast array of independent (i.e., not pharma-funded) studies have verified their efficacy compared to both placebo and so-called “holistic” alternatives. There is still much research that needs to be done to fully understand them (i.e., mode of mechanism, longitudinal studies, etc.), but the currently extant evidence shows that the best of these drugs (when responsibly prescribed and taken) act much like our studies of quantum phenomena: while we cannot predict any individual response, we can predict with remarkable accuracy the response of subjects in the aggregate. And in any case, the studies all show that the best treatment is multi-modal: chemical, behavioral, spiritual, and psychological.

    I’m sorry for the rant– being in the field, this is one of my pet issues and I despise the sound-byte, flippant, and downright dangerous attitude displayed by some Hollywood productions to this issue (i.e., “A Beautiful Mind”)

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