It's a tale of teenage survival, of pop-star fantasies, of issues with "happy" drugs, of dealings with parents who need help a lot more than their kids do, and of big business being conducted in high school bathrooms.
The title character who's tossed at us in the opening scene -- a dream in which he takes to a stadium stage as adoring fans shout "Charlie! Charlie!" -- is fully developed but always ready to adapt. Played by up-and-comer Anton Yelchin (the wide-eyed kid in House of D, the kidnappee in Alpha Dog, and a young man who is going to become a star as Chekov in the upcoming Star Trek), 17-year-old Charlie is an upbeat, very bright kid who knows the importance of a smile. He also keeps getting thrown out of one private school after another, most recently for running a fake ID venture.
His family has plenty of money, evidenced by the talk about his expulsion that he has with his mom (Hope Davis) while riding in the back of her chauffeured Mercedes. But his dad is nowhere to be seen. On the other side of things is Susan (Kat Dennings), the Bohemian-like girl running Shakespeare auditions at the public school that Charlie's now going to attend and upon whom he soon has his eye. Watch out, though. She's the daughter of Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), who gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield from his students, and whose wife is also out of the picture.
So we have a single mom who's hooked on antidepressants, a single dad who likes his Scotch, and two kids who are a couple of weirdos. This film's got some promise right from the get-go and it lives up to nearly all of it.
Charlie's a fish out of water, attending his first day at a "normal" school wearing a blazer and tie rather than a shirt that's tie-dyed. When he sticks out his hand to introduce himself to anyone in his path, he's avoided, and he's made to feel plenty unwelcome by a bully in the bathroom.
But that bully, Murph (scene-stealer Tyler Hilton), will turn out to be an important part of one of the ever-industrious Charlie's plans. In an interesting case of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," Charlie stops the bullying by inviting Murph into one of his schemes.
Anyone familiar with the almost-great Rock' n' Roll High School, will remember Clint Howard playing the fast-talking wheeler-dealer Eaglebauer, who set up an office in the boys room. A roundabout plot involving a psychiatrist's suggestion that our hero has ADD leads Charlie along the same road. As he starts to study drugs and their effects, then makes up symptoms, then convinces his shrink that he needs certain drugs, he invites Murph to join him in a thriving boys room business of providing therapeutic advice and selling Ritalin, Xanax and Zoloft to other students at a hefty profit. This, it turns out, is also a great way to become popular at school, just like Eaglebauer.
The film begins with and maintains a funny, breezy feel and a lickety-split pace. Yet it also successfully manages to bring up serious student issues such as loneliness, teen-parent relationships, and thoughts of suicide.
Director Jon Poll handles his cast inventively, getting them all to act naturally, especially in the case of Dennings' freewheeling Susan, who really knows how to wear bright red lipstick. He also gets a terrific low-key performance out of Downey, who comes across as confused but quietly forceful when he needs to be. I can't think of another actor who could combine menace and humor the way he does while offering the advice, "Never attack a drunk guy who has a gun."
Beyond the uniformly solid acting, Poll takes some cinematic risks and comes out winning, as in a scene where Charlie and his mom are in the midst of a friendly chat while jazzy piano music sneaks up behind them on the soundtrack. Then the scene cuts to another one of Charlie actually sitting at a piano playing the same piece. The segu & eacute; may be right out of the Robert Altman school (see California Split), but it works.
Oh, and that dream sequence at the beginning, with crowds of his peers chanting Charlie's name? That was no dream. That was just another one of Charlie's plans.