Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) may be Ferris Bueller by way of Rushmore's Max Fischer, but he's also very much his own man-child. Charlie's bracing mixture of maturity and naïveté makes him the perfect confidant for his classmates at Connecticut's West Summit High School, a public institution miles away from the tony private schools that have systematically booted Bartlett for creative misbehavior.
At Summit, he stands out as an aristocratic freak, albeit one with a compassionate streak. Keeping his composure during the ritual new-kid-initiation humiliations gives Charlie some credibility, but it's the way he manages to help whomever he encounters — be it an ostracized kid or his own tormentor — that turns him into a much-sought-after counselor. His peers line up outside the boys' room (the stalls are a makeshift confessional) to receive advice and the prescription drugs Bartlett doles out with the zeal of a pharmaceutical rep.
None of this sits too well with the self-medicating school principal, Nathan Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), who prefers booze to pills. He instantly distrusts the eager-to-please Bartlett, and resents his increasing popularity (which Gardner perceives as tangible power over a malleable student body). This is before he finds out his iconoclast daughter, Susan (Kat Dennings), has met her match in Charlie, who's responsible for regulating meds for his ditzy but encouraging mother, Marilyn (Hope Davis).
Without just the right touch, Charlie Bartlett could easily be too arch or squishy, but there's an ideal balance between mordant humor and determined optimism. Screenwriter Gustin Nash's hyper-aware teens are buoyed by the sharp comic timing of editor-turned-director Jon Poll (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me). And Yelchin (Huff, House of D) is pitch-perfect as a forward-thinking throwback, a know-it-all unafraid to confess ignorance.
This film's tone is distinctive even in the current Junoverse. Charlie Bartlett represents a new sincerity, evidenced by the utterly unironic use of the Cat Stevens song "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out," written for 1971's Harold & Maude (whose giddy mix of comedy and tragedy is an obvious influence). These teens are certainly jaded, but not cynical: they've seen too much and want to create a whole different view.
Even when it slips into familiar John Hughes grooves, the film's a pithy portrait of a medicated generation eagerly embracing the terrors and joys of adolescence with clear-eyed enthusiasm.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.