I am not Charlie Bartlett. I never started a drug dispensary out of the boys’ bathroom of my high school. I never organized wild parties in abandoned theaters. I never had a weirdly personal relationship with my principal, and my principal wasn’t a raging alcoholic. I was comfortably middle class, but never rich, and my first experience with a psychiatrist came when I was 23 (and lasted all of three weeks). I never went to an American high school, public or private, my father never went to prison, and I never had to remind my mother to take her medication. I didn’t help the most bullied kid in the school put on a redemptive stage play called “Hell Comes With Your Own Locker.” Charlie Bartlett, named for its protagonist, has nothing to do with my life, and yet it feels uncomfortably personal to watch again, seven years after I first saw it.
A brief primer, in case you were one of the millions who ignored the film and saw Superbad instead: Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin), a rich kid with a string of private school expulsions to his name, enrolls for the first time at a public high school and promptly sets up his own therapy office and pharmaceutical dispensary in the boys’ bathroom, much to the chagrin of school principal Nathan Gardner (Robert Downey Jr., pre-Iron Man, turning in the best performance of the film) and bemusement of Susan Gardner (Kat Dennings), daughter of the principal and love interest of Charlie. Somewhere along the way, some people are helped by Charlie’s good intentions, others are hurt, and things get kind of messy before they’re wrapped up tidily in the last ten minutes.
If it sounds like I’m being pithy, it’s at least partially deliberate; while it has its strengths,Charlie Bartlett is a deeply unfocused film. It seems to want to say five different things at once, and sentiments often get lost in the mix.
The messages in this film bounce around in the echo chamber of its one hour and thirty six-minute running time, and there are so many being employed to wildly differing degrees. With such a varied number of ideas, it’s almost inevitable that some of them strike close to home; make enough universal statements about youth, and chances are, your audience will identify with at least a handful of them.
An example: Charlie Bartlett is called into two separate school offices over the course of this film. The first is to announce his expulsion from an elite private school for starting an illegal laminating press to print fake IDs. During his second brush with authority, Charlie attempts to convince Principal Gardner to allow the production of school outcast Kip’s play.
I was called into my high school principal’s office once after a friend and I performed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at a school concert, and a parent complained that her child had been “exposed to disgusting filth” due to the fact that one of the verses of “Hallelujah” vaguely alludes to sex. It was deeply uncomfortable, made more so when the principal admitted that he’d only called us in because it was school procedure to follow up with complaints from parents. There was a weird sense of camaraderie about the whole thing.
That sense of camaraderie wasn’t there two years later, with a different principal, when two friends and I were called in to discuss something we’d done that had actually transgressed UK law, but was so a) esoteric and b) uncomfortable to discuss while our parents were regrettably present that it doesn’t fit the typical high school template of a kid getting suspended for shoving another kid in a locker, and more closely resembles Charlie’s laminating business.
Or there’s the one scene where Charlie confronts the school bully in the back of his car, like some hardened mob boss, all refined elegance and cool-as-a-cucumber line delivery. I never did this, but I have a thousand parallels, where I would act a certain way or say a certain thing because I thought it made me look cool, and it was often an attitude I’d pulled from a movie. Oh, how we worshipped Fight Club. Oh, how stupid and insufferable we were.
Behind Charlie’s tendency to act out is an innate penchant for theatricality and showmanship, and the fact that it’s consistently misdirected. Yes, he auditions for a school play, but beyond that, he seems more focused on creating a cult of personality. He has recurring dreams about addressing a crowd of adoring fans. And there, Charlie doesn’t just remind me of me. He reminds me of my best friend through high school, too. And it hurts to watch.
Everything my friend did in public was bizarre – he would speak in nonsense languages, lurch down corridors in a way that would make Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks look sedate, and use the school grounds as the location for an experiment in outward absurdism that lasted a good seven years. He gained a reputation as the kid who would do crazy things to entertain others, even if it meant getting in trouble, often at the expense of real human connection. He would switch into a completely different personality when we were alone together – a much more withdrawn, inarticulate, awkward person who was having a hard time navigating adolescence.
In public, I shared in his weird antics, but I felt the performative nature of it a little earlier, even as I participated in it. We had a captive audience, and part of me shrank in horror from the whole thing. We explained it to ourselves as an attempt at bringing joy to others, but it was a defense mechanism. We endured our own private hells throughout high school. He struggled with a burgeoning alcohol dependency and self-destructive tendencies. I grappled with depression and anxiety, which would go untreated until I was at university. We never talked about this stuff. It was easier to write juvenile screenplays and construct a rudimentary language out of pterodactyl-like screeching.
Charlie is messed up. He says he’s helping people when Principal Gardner asks him to “explain what you’re doing, or why you’re doing this.” But Charlie’s help has come dangerously close to killing one of his classmates. He’s had some hollow highlights on the way to tragedy, but they don’t stand out as particularly impressive in the wake of an attempted suicide.
Later in the movie, he’s confronted with his principal, waving a gun around and so drunk he can barely stand upright. After a whole film of putting Band-Aids on the gaping emotional wounds that adolescence opens up, he finally breaks when Gardner asks for him to come up with a similarly trite aphorism to fix all of his problems.
The best he has to offer, after Gardner asks him to “spit it out,” is “I dunno.” Gardner taunts him. “Maybe some of that post-pubescent psychobabble. Maybe a pearl of wisdom.” Again – I dunno, I dunno, I dunno, each blank response more and more frantic as Charlie realizes that he’s seriously out of his depth. Gardner shakes his head. “I don’t need you to say anything to me, and I don’t need you to save me,” he slurs.
Charlie starts crying. “Alright, then what am I supposed to do in this situation? I’m just a kid! I’m just a stupid kid!” Charlie says, wringing his hands.
Gardner shakes his head, blinking. “Stop the fuckin’ presses. Run that by me again. You’re a what?”
“I’m just a kid.”
“I get it. It’s tough. I was a kid once too,” Gardner says quietly, lowering his head.
This scene is still powerful upon re-watching it now. It’s a scene where an adult, clearly off the rails and having lost his sense of direction, provokes a kid into admitting the same. I didn’t have a moment like this when I was a teenager. Yes, there were plenty of authority figures passing on advice, but I did what every other teenager does and ignored them. Kids, in general, think they have all the answers, which is what makes this scene all the more powerful. For a brief moment, Charlie has enough humility to see his actions in a different light. Does it stick? Who knows - he’s still just a kid. Yes, he has the perspective to finally visit his father in prison in the closing shots of the movie, but as to whether or not his days of acting out are behind him is left, one likes to think deliberately, open.
I’m 25 now, which everyone keeps reminding me is young, but it’s getting to the point where I’m too old to anchor myself in childhood. It’s hard, though, because I still have a lot of shame bound up in the time when I was a teenager, and shame can be powerfully isolating. At its strongest, you become the only person on the planet capable of doing the idiot things you’ve done.
The crucial thing about Charlie Bartlett is that, rather than growing into adulthood without emotionally addressing his misdeeds, he has to confront them head-on. And then he moves on. Even as I was making mistakes as a teenager, I didn’t recognize them as mistakes, which is why they sometimes feel so uncomfortable - I’m not just remembering the things I did, but the defiance around them. Watching Charlie Bartlett, and Charlie’s humility, allows me to forgive myself for all the dumb things I did when I was younger. I think that’s important if I’m ever going to succeed at being an adult; past a certain point, if you keep resenting your younger self, you don’t give yourself a chance to look forward. Charlie is just a kid, and so were we, and kids do and say stupid things all the time. It’s kind of why they’re kids. You muddle through, and you do your best, even when your best is pretty terrible. If you’re lucky, you come out in one piece.
Christopher Fraser is the Operations Manager for Bright Wall/Dark Room and the author of two books. He lives and works in Massachusetts.