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|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E
dir Jon Poll
scr Gustin Nash
with Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr, Hope Davis, Kat Dennings, Tyler Hilton, Mark Rendall, Dylan Taylor, Ishan Davé, Derek McGrath, Megan Park, Jake Epstein, David Brown
release US 22.Feb.08, UK 16.May.08
07/US MGM 1h36
Up to something: Yelchin and Downey
Drawing on the rich history of principal-vs-student movies, this bracingly original and surprisingly edgy teen comedy is packed with vivid characters and situations that are written with insight and played with attitude.
After being thrown out of a series of posh prep schools, Charlie Bartlett (Yelchin) is sent to the local high school by his wealthy, medicated mother (Davis). Ever since his father was sent to prison, Charlie has cared for his mother, but it's the way he cares for fellow students that gets him in trouble; this time he's running a psychiatric clinic in the boy's room, complete with psychotropic drugs. Charlie refuses to play by the rules, so he's attracted to the strong-minded Susan (Dennings). But she's the daughter of the principal (Downey).
The film begins as a smart, Rushmore-like take on school, in which students are one step ahead of the staff, with Charlie leading the Van Wilder-style charge and challenging the principal with Ferris Bueller inventiveness. From here it shifts into Election-esque sharpness, touching on strong issues without sanitising anything. These serious themes bring about a series of events that resonate with Breakfast Clubby emotion and honesty.
Cast and crew maintain an engagingly snarky tone throughout the film, with raucous dialog and a gleeful willingness to crush teen movie stereotypes even as Charlie obliterates the rules of high school society. The humour is often wickedly rude, played to perfection by the cast (Charlie's theatre audition is classic). And the adult characters are just as twisted and entertaining.
But it's much more than mindless comedy. This is a smart film that seriously looks at how teens crave someone who will listen to them without prejudice or judgement. And beneath the hilarity, there are extremely serious plot elements, such as Charlie's difficulty with his father, the principal's careless alcoholism (knowingly well-played by Downey), a stark look at depression and a slow, realistic romance.
Even the requisite message is delivered with a sting in the tale, as Charlie discovers that responsibility must accompany popularity. These small epiphanies--in both the grown-ups and the teens--are played so beautifully by the cast that we don't really mind it when slushy sentimentality shows up in the end. Actually, we kind of welcome it.
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© 2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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