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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

Charlie Bartlett’s War

Fast times, teen therapy

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A goodteenage comedy should nail the particulars of high school life, a purgatory period that remains rife with satirical potential generation after generation. It should also satirize the society that promulgated the purgatory. By those measures, Charlie Bartlett is a success. The adult problems it spoofs are magnified and distorted in the funhouse mirror of teen life.

In Charlie Bartlett, everyone is troubled and seeking medication, whether licitly or illicitly, pharmaceutical or otherwise. Their problems, however, aren’t resolved through pills or liquor, but only deferred. Sometimes the druggy therapy engenders its own problems.

Enter the movie’s titular protagonist. Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a beaming teenager with a sparkling smile, scion of a super-rich family with brains to spare. His problem, stemming from growing up almost exclusively with his mom (Hope Davis), is that he just isn’t well liked by his peers. As a result of his need to feel loved, or at least important, he conceived a series of illegal schemes that resulted in expulsion from the private academies he attended.

We meet him as he is being politely booted for making counterfeit ID cards. As the chauffeur drives the Mercedes back to the gated mansion, mom, coolly disapproving yet nonetheless supportive, announces that no alternative remains but public school.

And there, amid the unruly gaggle of Goths and jocks, tie-dye queens and freaks, he is more fish out of water than ever. What to do? After his posh family psychiatrist, who despite the Freudian leather couch is a licensed pill-pusher like his downmarket competitors, diagnoses ADD and prescribes Ritalin, Charlie conceives his latest scheme. Working with the mohawked working-class bully who had been his tormentor, Charlie begins selling his bottomless supply of Ritalin, supplemented by collecting prescriptions from a chain of half-witted shrinks. Soon it’s no longer recreational.

Drawing from a pharmacy of Xanax and Zoloft, he begins to hold therapy sessions in the lavatory, prescribing pills to treat the depression and anxiety disorders of classmates. He becomes the big man on campus. But his pills nearly kill a suicidal depressive boy.

All the while mom washes down her Prozac with Chablis and the school principal (a wonderfully conflicted Robert Downey Jr.) deadens the pain of his life with whiskey. He was happy teaching history, but was promoted beyond his level, and has an angry exwife and a cutie daughter Susan (Kat Dennings) who won’t listen. When Susan casts her eyes on Charlie, who is rapidly becoming the school’s ringleader, dad is nonplussed.

Susan and Charlie share something beyond sexual attraction. Both have been wounded by the loss of a parent, not to death but to adult misbehavior. Charlie Bartlett is a cleverly subversive comedy that casts a revealing light on the troubles of teens and adults alike. All are stumbling along in the dark with the blind in charge of the blind. Most are capable of finding solutions and making choices they did- n’t know they had. The cheeky consulting room Charlie sets up in the lavatory with conversations from adjoining stalls suggests a confessional. Charlie is at his best when he isn’t pushing nostrums or pills but when, like a wise counselor, he listens to his patient and prescribes sound advice.

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