As far as I can figure it, there are two steps to making good movies.
Step one: put some heart into it. That way we can pretend we're the characters when they go and do something completely unbelievable, like have girlfriends.
Step two: well...everything else that makes movies good. You know, car crashes. Pretty ladies. People leaping out of planes without parachutes and then stretching their shirt out like a flying squirrel and gliding to safety. Or, if you're not into the whole explosions thing, well-crafted dramas where the people act like people and throw some light onto what it's all about.
I'm kind of bummed out by movies such as Charlie Bartlett, works that pull off step one (good intentions) but totally drop the ball on step two (the execution). Like candy Circus Peanuts, they always feel like they should be better than they actually are.
Expelled from private school for selling fake IDs -- not because he needed the money, but because he wanted to be appreciated -- Anton Yelchin has a rough transition to the local high school. His fancy suits stand out, most of the kids ignore him, and the few who do pay him any mind, like mohawked thug Tyler Hilton, are much more interested in kicking his ass than playing nice.
His fellow students know his name once he starts peddling his prescription of Ritalin at school, though. Partnering up with Hilton (ah, the power of money to bring people together), he builds a thriving business in prescription meds and offers free therapy in the school bathroom to any kid who just wants to talk.
Alcoholic and unrespected principal Robert Downey, Jr. starts to take notice of Yelchin's stunts, too, especially when he hears Yelchin's been seeing his daughter Kat Dennings, another student at the school. With the threat of expulsion looming again, Yelchin's got to find a way to keep helping his new friends' confused lives without wrecking his own in the process.
That's Charlie Bartlett's boiled-down plot. The full one's an episodic stew of school plays, dances, protests, out-of-touch administrators and depressed minor characters without the personality to leave any lasting impression.
Neither first-time writer Gustin Nash or second-time director Jon Poll have a sure handle on what they're working with. Poll's subtle idea of a Ritalin high is to show Yelchin racing around an empty pool to frantic piano music, then dashing outside and screaming in the yard in nothing but his underpants. That wouldn't be very funny in a slapstick comedy. In the middle of a dramedy where its heart is its biggest asset, it's just jarring.
So how much credit does that heart earn it? Well, you can't hate characters when you've got some sympathy for them (and the cast is definitely likable), but you can break your jaw yawning during those eighty-hundred scenes in the movie's middle with only tangential links to the main plot. At some point any conflict dries up altogether, replaced by a well-meaning but awkward run about how hard it is to grow up, especially when one or both of your parents have serious problems of their own. Which, apparently, is harder than performing dental surgery while wearing Mickey Mouse gloves.
Charlie Bartlett could have used an ironfisted editor who'd laugh uproariously as he burned film by the can until it's got about half as many plot points and a third as many earnestly expressed feelings flying around. That wouldn't solve all its problems -- that would take stronger characters and a clearer idea of whether it wanted to be a high school farce or a touching drama -- but it would be a start.