Charlie Bartlett fantasizes about someday standing on a stage in front of an enormous crowd of cheering, adoring teens. Just about everything he does is designed to help him reach that position of popularity, including running a fake ID service for his fellow students. Proper schools frown on that sort of thing, however, and Charlie finds himself expelled. He’s been expelled from so many snooty prep schools, in fact, that his mother has run out of options. So it’s off to public school.
There he meets a semi-goth cutie named Susan. Things are looking up already.
But Charlie’s straight-from-prep-school attire doesn’t endear him to his new peers. And he quickly lands face-down in a toilet. Face poundings follow soon after. When he arrives home bruised and depressed, his wealthy and detached mother sends him off to see a psychiatrist. And Charlie ends up with lots of Ritalin.
Then it hits the too-bright-for-his-own-good youth that his prescription—and connections to his mother’s many gullible doctors—could be the very thing to get him in good at school. Making the face-pounding bully, Murphey, his partner in a pharmaceutical business, Charlie becomes the school’s drug-pushing, de facto shrink. And with Susan warming to his nerdy charm, there’s really only one thing standing in the way of love and high school fame: Susan’s father … the principal.
Even though Charlie’s choices are often poor ones, he earnestly cares about the wellbeing of the other students and finds self-worth when he thinks he’s helping them with their problems. One vivid case in point: When he first boards the school bus he sits with a mentally challenged student, making friends with him. And he sits with him again at lunch despite judgmental glares from other students.
Charlie is a positive thinker and tries to encourage other students to realize that “the sky’s the limit and you’re not alone.” He supports fellow student Kip and gets the drama club to stage the boy’s play. After Kip makes an attempt at suicide, Charlie forces Murphey to flush all the drugs down the toilet. Later, when the kids at school riot and destroy school property, Charlie is ready to accept full responsibility.
Though his mom is too medicated to be an effective parent, it’s obvious that she loves her son. When Charlie accidentally falls into the pool and is knocked unconscious, Principal Gardner dives in to save him.
After Charlie and Murphey sell Ritalin at a school dance, the kids go wild and two girls run topless down the hallway. (The camera catches a quick glimpse of them from the front, and a longer one from the back.) Charlie is seen in his undershorts on several occasions. A number of female students wear low-cut or midriff-baring outfits. Charlie’s mom wears cleavage-baring tops. Susan has pictures of girls in bikinis on her bedroom door.
Charlie and Susan kiss on several occasions. Several other students are seen kissing at a party. During a session with Charlie, a cheerleader wonders if she should get breast implants. She also admits to having had sex with most of the football team. It’s suggested that a girl have her “nana” pierced. Charlie auditions for a play reciting a monologue about a girl and her menstrual flow.
After it’s implied that Charlie and Susan have had sex (Susan wears a bra), Charlie steps out in front of a crowd of teens (wearing boxers and a blazer) and announces that he’s no longer a virgin. “Encouraging” Kip, Charlie tells him he has “everything to live for”—including rock music and Internet porn.
Murphey makes a habit of beating up other kids and videotaping the punishment. Thus, we see a compilation of kids being punched in the face, knocked to the ground and thrown into a wall. One kid has his face jammed, bleeding, into a chain-link fence. While drunk, Principal Gardner stands in his boxer shorts and robe on his back deck shooting into his pool with a .38. Charlie punches the principal during an argument.
The f-word seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue with about 25 uses, followed at a distant second by the s-word with about 10 exclamations. Other profanities include several uses each of “d–n,” “a–,” “b–ch” and “h—.” The name of Jesus is inappropriately exclaimed once, and one of the movie’s songs combines God’s name with “d–n.”
Conniving and lying to do it, Charlie gathers together many prescriptions from multiple doctors and sells the drugs (including Ritalin, Zoloft and Xanax) to a steady parade of students. His mom doesn’t help the situation much, either. She leaves him a note after school that says, “Ritalin in the bag. Dinner in the oven. Love, Mom.” She tries to cheer her son up with, “Maybe we could go to a wine tasting. We haven’t done that since you were a kid.” And she says, “When we were in college we dropped acid.”
Mom drinks wine and hard alcohol on numerous occasions—once to wash down prescription drugs. Principal Gardner frequently downs glasses of the hard stuff at home and in a bar. Several times he is inebriated, becoming physically and verbally agitated. Teens drink beer at a party and a concert. In his bedroom, Kip has an animated poster of a character drinking.
Murphey smokes cigarettes obsessively. Susan also lights up, as do other kids. Some smoke marijuana.
When Charlie is being expelled, his mother tries to bribe the school with an endowment check. Charlie holds his “psychiatric” sessions in the boys’ bathroom at school. He and the “patient” sit in separate stalls—giving the impression of a confessional booth. Principal Gardner is as ineffective a dad as he is a bad principal. He threatens Charlie, telling him to leave his daughter alone or he will “take a massive steaming dump” on his life.
Charlie never suffers consequences for selling drugs to the student body. (And he’s treated as a hero by the kids.)
Like most R-rated movies that “unofficially” target teens nowadays, Charlie Bartlett bangs the drum of youthful angst, alienation, loneliness and disenchantment—while including the prerequisites of nudity, sex, foul language and drug abuse. I’m not saying it’s the Porky’s of a new generation, but it’s certainly an R-rated version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
To the movie’s credit, along with its Converse high-tops it wears some cautionary homilies about the misuse of prescription drugs in today’s schools. It could even be argued that it turns a corner of sorts when his peer’s suicide attempt inspires Charlie to dump his inventory down the commode. The whole premise, though, is pretty difficult to wrap your mind around. Come on, are you trying to tell me nobody notices that Charlie sets up a pseudo-psychiatrist office and pharmacy in the bathroom? How about the fact that none of the students ever go to class since they’re too busy lining up to see if the doctor’s in?
And are adults really this stupid and uncaring? When Charlie’s mom is faced with a box of fake IDs that her son has created, she says, “Well, you have to admit they look very authentic.” Later, when Charlie asks her what might be more important than popularity, she’s stumped. And besides a less-than-meaningful line about the choices you make in life having meaning, Principal Gardner’s most trenchant piece of advice is, “Never attack a gun-waving drunk” (which he, at that moment, is). Indeed, every onscreen adult is either completely miserable and self-medicated or a doctor who’s tossing out drugs like a Pez dispenser.
Charlie Bartlett‘s promotional tagline is the snarky “People like you are the reason people like me need medication.” Translated, that reads, “Defy authority. Your parents and teachers are just as messed up as you are.”
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.