The comparisons to classic 1980s comedy 'Ferris Bueller’s Day Off' are unavoidable but, although 'Charlie Bartlett' is a fine addition to the genre, it doesn’t quite match it in charm or hilarity.
Charlie (Yelchin) was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and, with his father in prison for tax evasion and a flaky, pill-popping mother (Davis), he is wise beyond his years. Shuttled from one private school to the next for indiscretions such as forging fake IDs, he is finally sent to the local public school. Donning a blazer with Latin insignia, and carrying a flash briefcase, he is an immediate target for the school bullies.
All Charlie wants is to be very, very popular and he soon finds a means of achieving this. Winning the acceptance of his peers by supplying Ritalin at a high school dance, the scheming entrepreneur becomes an unofficial shrink to the school.
He doles out the prescription drugs that he has gotten from a range of psychiatrists who are all too happy to medicate his feigned symptoms, gleaned from medical books. But Charlie doesn't just offer chemical solutions; he holds therapy sessions for his 'patients' and dispenses common-sense advice too.
Of course, Charlie can't get away with this scot-free and his adversary comes in the form of the school's ineffectual leader, Principal Gardner (Downey Jr). Formally a history teacher, his new post has made him turn to hard drinking to cope with the stress. His authority is further undermined when he installs surveillance cameras in the students' lounge, prompting a protest which escalates into an out-and-out riot.
He further resents Charlie when he begins dating his daughter Susan, all culminating in an alarming scene with the whiskey-swigging principal brandishing a shotgun at Charlie.
Downey Jr is excellent and sympathetic as the troubled principal, and his complicated relationship with his teen daughter is believable. Yelchin perfectly pitches Charlie in all his flawed charm, and Hilton portrays the Mohawked punk who undergoes a transformation under Charlie’s guidance with charisma.
'Charlie Bartlett’ has its heart in the right place, but doesn’t have the infectious feel-good factor of 'Ferris Bueller' that makes it repeat viewing material.