SANTA MONICA, California — At first glance, you might assume "Charlie Bartlett" is another Hollywood coming-of-age wannabe in the mold of "Igby Goes Down," "Tadpole" and "Rushmore," movies that try to pour disparate classics like "Harold and Maude," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Graduate" into a blender to see if a yummy concoction spills out. Look a bit deeper, however, and you might find a flick with its finger on the pulse of one of society's fastest-growing cancers.
" 'Charlie Bartlett' is the story of this kid that gets kicked out of private school and goes to public school with the intention of becoming popular," the film's 18-year-old star, Anton Yelchin, explained to us recently. "And he sells prescription drugs and becomes the school's psychiatrist."
As portrayed by Yelchin, Charlie is a smooth-talking kid from a broken home whose mother (Hope Davis) can't face the day without a handful of pills and a chardonnay chaser. Facing the age-old dilemma of how to become popular at a new school, Charlie begins telling his shrink that he's plagued by everything from depression to ADD, then sells the prescribed pills to classmates eager to enjoy a cheap high.
"The whole point isn't that Charlie Bartlett takes Ritalin to help him concentrate. The point is that he doesn't need Ritalin, so he has a reaction to it and gets really high off of it," Yelchin said of an early scene in which his character realizes the powers of the pill. "I didn't take Ritalin for preparation on [those scenes], but I think [writer/director] Jon [Poll] experimented with it, to try to figure out what he wanted Charlie to take."
Following the recent deaths of Heath Ledger and Casey Calvert, the dangers of self-medicating are finally emerging from society's shadows. According to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases of accidental drug poisoning rose 68 percent between 1999 and 2004, and the problem continues to get worse.
"If you look at recent news, there are a lot of stories about prescription drugs," Yelchin said. "I think it makes certain people smarter. ... We're so used to all these other drugs [being dangerous] that we feel more comfortable with pills, and I think that's a huge problem. They are no less of a drug than anything else you put in your system."
Undoubtedly, for every high-profile celebrity who struggles with addiction, there are tens of thousands of nameless people doing the same. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 48 million Americans have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons in their lifetime.
"A lot of the college students I know are using them," Yelchin sighed. "There's a certain [new belief] of our society that everything has become a lot more tedious, and you'd need a lot more than 24 hours in the day to get all your things done. At the same time, there's a tendency in our society to categorize everything, and put everyone into a box of their own. And you give them a prescription for their box.
"['Charlie Bartlett' explores] the whole idea of these drugs, and what they are doing to kids; how kids are getting these drugs, and who they're getting them from," he observed. "And what kind of society advocates the use of this medicine, to a point where kids can get them and pop them."
Insisting that the film was designed to "sound like a comedy, but look like a drama," Yelchin added that "these themes aren't to be taken lightly; they're to be taken into consideration, but it is a funny movie." As such, Charlie Bartlett isn't your garden-variety drug dealer. Instead, he sets up an "office" in the boys' bathroom, plays psychiatrist to his fellow students, then has his partner, the school bully (Tyler Hilton), fill the role of pharmacist.
"That's what Charlie Bartlett does," explained Yelchin, remembering characters like the school cheerleader who has slept with the whole football team in an attempt to feel wanted. "He takes each kid and really talks to them and gives them his honest opinion. He'll look up their symptoms, and he won't just give them Ritalin if they need Zantac or whatever."
By capitalizing on teenage insecurity, and giving kids a quick fix without ever involving their parents, Charlie soon becomes the coolest kid in school. But real life soon invades this fantasy tale, when a depressed student takes too many of his pills.
"He uses the pills and ODs," Yelchin shrugged. "If you don't learn from that, I don't know what to say.
"The whole point of that character is that you as an audience member learn from it, but also that Charlie Bartlett learns," he added. "Some people do need these medications; some people cannot function without these medications. And then other people can function perfectly without them and need something else. ... [Charlie] realizes that the most important thing he is giving is the honest advice [that kids aren't getting from adults]; it's not so much the pills. ... The point is that, if given the opportunity to vent, a lot of people just need that.
"At some point he does realize, 'I've got to adjust how I'm going to do this,' " Yelchin said, adding that he hopes viewers enjoy a few laughs with Charlie, but also take home the same message that he and his classmates do: "Selling prescription drugs isn't particularly the best thing to be doing."
Check out everything we've got on "Charlie Bartlett."
For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.