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It's only been a year and half since Anton Yelchin tragically died in a car collision, and the acting world is hurt greatly by the lack of this rising talent. Known my pop culture as Pavel Chekov in the Star Trek reboot and by film aficionados as the lead punk in Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room, Yelchin had humble beginnings as a child and teenage actor that helped to propel him to early success. One of those successes, Charlie Bartlett, turns ten years old this year, and not only does it deserve to be remembered as a vital part of an all too short filmography, but it's a pretty decent movie in its own right.
Yelchin plays the titular Charlie, a rich high school senior who has a penchant for pushing the rules so that he gets kicked out of every private school he attends. At the behest of a mother (Hope Davis) who can't bring herself to treat him as the kid he is but instead as a buddy surrogate for Charlie's imprisoned father, Charlie starts at a public school, where he quickly becomes the target of bullies and is treated as the ultimate outsider. However, once he discovers that his wealth and privilege allows him easy access to psychoactive medication by manipulating his shrinks, Charlie starts a makeshift pharmacy and therapy center in the boys' bathroom, propelling him to popularity and influence to the chagrin of the principal (Robert Downey Jr.).
There's actually some great commentary in this lighthearted teen comedy in how the privileged have such easy access to medication that people of lower economic classes lack, and even then it is not closely regulated or monitored when big money is in play. More importantly, Charlie is as much of a quack prescriptionist as the doctors who push the drugs on him, and though the overmedicalization of his peers may make him king of the school as they drown their problems in drug-induced hazes, those problems are still present. Charlie does eventually recognize his role as a false idol of mental health, but he must potentially sacrifice a lot of social capital to bring his school back to equilibrium. Yelchin invests this performance with the perspective of one who has been forced to age too much too fast, a monumental feat for one who isn’t so far removed from the confused age he is portraying.
The film does suffer from some muddied character arcs and a lack of central conflict for a large portion of the second act, but what ultimately carries the film to success is the charisma of Yelchin's Charlie and Downey Jr.'s antagonistic principal. Downey Jr. is as always a master of calculated neuroses, but his character is a complex portrait of how an adult can crumble under the pressures of a role they are unsuited for, as he turns to self-medicating with alcohol to cope with the unwanted promotion to principal from history teacher. This contrasts well with Yelchin's eccentric and goofy persona, who plays at adulthood in his entrepreneurial pursuits, but is prone to childlike outbursts of attention-grabbing charm. Both of these performances make an otherwise okay film something a bit more special, and in particular it's Anton Yelchin's influence that pushes it over the edge into an above-average genre exercise.
Charlie Bartlett isn't one of the best films out there, and it isn't even among the best performances Anton Yelchin ever gave. However, if he was exhibiting this much raw talent ten years ago, imagine where he could have gone ten years from now. The wound may not be fresh anymore, but we should all continue to remember the potential powerhouse we lost in Anton Yelchin, and grab up every bit of it that has been preserved for commemoration. Charlie Bartlett isn't a bad place to start.