'Charlie Bartlett': High School High, By Kurt Loder

Anton Yelchin stars unforgettably in a teen-movie mini-classic.

Charlie Bartlett yearns to be loved, or even just liked. He seems to have everything. He's bright and cheerful and lives with his doting mom in a mansion of baronial luxury. But his indomitable determination to help others, to make them as happy as he should be, has only gotten him in trouble. Now, at 17, having been booted from a series of private schools, he's enrolled in a public high school, where fellow students mock his sunny disposition ("Hi, I'm Charlie Bartlett!") and his preppy blazers and ties, and crude bullies pummel him in the lavatory. What's a chronically upbeat guy to do?

With "Charlie Bartlett," first-time feature director Jon Poll, a veteran film editor, has created a small classic of teenage tribulation. The movie's script, a debut effort by TV writer Gustin Nash, is rich in funny twists and surprises, and alive with fully drawn characters we can really care about. Most engaging of all is the picture's star. Known until now chiefly as a child actor in movies like "Hearts in Atlantis," Anton Yelchin gives a performance here that's way beyond his years. With generous support by Hope Davis and Robert Downey Jr., Yelchin carries off every scene with fresh, vibrant energy — it's hard to imagine anyone else inhabiting this role so inventively.

Charlie's mom (Davis), distraught over the loss of her husband ("He's not with us anymore," Charlie says, misleadingly), maintains her sweet serenity on a diet of wine and Klonipin. Thus instructed in the virtues of medication, Charlie sets out to make the world — or at least his school — a better place. Perceiving that his classmates all suffer from traditional forms of teen torment (depression, frustration, nonexistent self-esteem), Charlie begins describing their individual symptoms as his own to his mother's on-call psychiatrist, who blithely writes out prescriptions for the other kids' problems. Soon the school is buzzing with manic high spirits, and Charlie, dispensing meds and even psychiatric consultations in a newly popular bathroom, is a hero. He's neutralized the head bully (luggishly lovable Tyler Hilton) by bringing him into his drug-therapy program as a partner. But he's also drawn the suspicion of the school's principal (Downey), whom he further alienates by taking up with his daughter (Kat Dennings, from "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"), on whom Charlie comes calling in the family limo.

The characters glow with recognizable human quirks, from Downey's principal, a dedicated history teacher driven to booze by his unhappiness at being elevated to head disciplinarian, to Kip (Mark Rendall), the school outcast ("The last time a girl talked to me was in third grade"), and resident hot chick Whitney (Megan Park), who disconsolately confides to Charlie that "I've slept with every guy on the football team. Well, all of the backfield, anyway." By the time the movie arrives at its perfectly formed conclusion, we feel we've come to know these characters almost as well as we do some people in our own lives. We wish they could stick around.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "The Signal" here.

Check out everything we've got on "Charlie Bartlett."

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