Charlie Bartlett: Comedy Starring Anton Yelchin

An optimist, a truth-teller and a fearless schemer, when Charlie Bartlett positions himself as his new schools resident psychiatrist, dishing out both honest advice and powerful prescriptions, he has no idea the ways in which he will transform his classmates, the school principal and his own life.

This is the premise of the comedy, CHARLIE BARTLETT, in which a wealthy teenagers foray into bathroom-stall psychiatry becomes a funny and touching one-man battle against the loneliness, angst and hypocrisy of the modern world.

Anton Yelchin (Alpha Dog) stars as Charlie Bartlett, who has been kicked out of every private school he ever attended. And now that hes moved on to public school, hes getting pummeled. But when Charlie discovers that the kids who surround him are secretly in desperate need, his entrepreneurial spirit takes over. Charlie becomes an underground shrink who listens to the private confessions of his schoolmates, and makes the imprudent decision to hand out the pills hes proffered from his own psychiatric sessions. Meanwhile, at home, Charlie keeps charming his way out of an inevitable confrontation with his overwhelmed mother Marilyn (Hope Davis.)

Then, Charlie makes his big mistake: falling in love with the beautiful and bold daughter (Kat Dennings) of the schools Principal (Robert Downey, Jr.), who is hot on his trail. As Charlies world and fledgling psychiatric practice unravel, he begins to discover theres more to making a difference than handing out pills.

CHARLIE BARTLETT marks the directorial debut of Jon Poll, a film editor with comic roots who has collaborated with Jay Roach on the blockbusters Meet the Parents and Austin Powers series, and the screen debut of writer Gustin Nash.

Original Character

An irreverent teen hero with a wry view of the adult world, an unsinkable belief in the power of youth and an outrageous scheme to ensure his perpetual popularity, CHARLIE BARTLETT drew passionate fans in Hollywood. Among those was comedy director and producer Jay Roach, who in turn sent the script to Jon Poll.

For Poll, CHARLIE BARTLETT was love at first read. Id read a hundred scripts, just waiting to find one I really liked, and this was it, recalls Poll. I laughed out loud as well as felt challenged, entertained, surprised and moved. Here was a high school movie about real people and real issues with lots of humor as well as pathos. Charlie Bartlett was such a great character, someone who could overcome nearly anything with his guileless optimism, and that was really appealing.

The character of Charlie was born in the imagination of screenwriter Gustin Nash, who was making ends meet at a camera store in the Burbank Mall at the time. It was there, among those hanging out at the mall, from the super-cool to the outcast, that Nash first started thinking about the disparity between raw truth of the teenagers and the slicker, simplified kinds of kids depicted at the movies.

I set out to write something about teenagers that wouldnt have so much gloss, that would feel pretty authentic, says Nash. Teenagers are not stupid and at times I think theyve got a lot up on adults, so it was important to me that this story feel very real in every aspect.

Nash began probing how a hopeful kid takes on a world of confusion–a world rife with high pressure and low self-esteem, and with a huge need for acceptance and an irresistible urge for rebellion. CHARLIE BARTLETT began down a provocative path, taking up the issue of pharmaceutical psychiatry and the reality of overmedication of teens with powerful psychotropic drugs, as Charlie begins dispensing Ritalin, Prozac and other feel-good pills so popular with adults, among his schools populace.

Nash knew he was edging into controversial territory with this storyline but he had no intention of dodging whats a reality for many kids who either use or abuse psychiatric drugs. Yet the film is at heart a character-driven comedy about Charlies realization that theres far more to helping people than just giving them a quick fix.

The film isnt really pro psychiatric drugs or anti psychiatric drugs, Nash says. Its really about a kid who starts off selling these drugs to gain popularity but comes to realize he can help kids talk about their problems through methods other than drugs. It never occurred to Charlie that he could be doing really good things for people until now.

Nash enjoyed carving out a teen hero with a different kind of attitude than usually seen in movies. What makes Charlie cool to me is that some people deal with their turmoil by getting angry or depressed, but Charlie deals with things through optimism, he observes. Hes always giving other people and new ideas the benefit of the doubt which makes him pretty unusual.

Though the film dives into darker comic territory, Nash says it is about hope–for both teens and adults. He comments: People will leave this film talking about drugs, and thats good, but I what I also wanted to say is that were all going through a lot of these same things and you are not alone.

The scripts mixture of inspirational uplift and edge drew in producers David Permut and Barron Kidd. Permut read CHARLIE BARTLETT after Nash submitted the script as a sample of his work in hopes to adapt the novel, YOUTH IN REVOLT, which Permut had acquired. After Permut read CHARLIE BARTLETT, he gave Nash the YOUTH IN REVOLT project and assured him that they would be making CHARLIE BARTLETT as well. The script was provocative, original and different, says Permut. Its a comedy that goes beneath the surface and its about the world we live in today. As a producer, I tend to look for stories that are distinctive and bold, and thats what I found in Gustins script. He also has a real talent for capturing the reality of how kids talk.

Jay Roach also came on board as a producer, thrilled at the match between CHARLIE BARTLETT and Poll. Having spent years in cutting rooms with Jon, I can say that he’s a pure storyteller and master of tone, says Roach. Permut and Kidd were equally excited about what Poll would bring to the production. Gustins story has dark undertones and Jon brought a lot of light and life and humor to the script, says Kidd.
But when the filmmakers tried to get the movie off the ground, they ran into resistance. Too dangerous was the most common response. The project found a home at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, which brings a fresh and diverse slate of independent projects to the screen. SKE had the same enthusiastic view of a story that has relevance for kids today, as well as anyone who knows a kid or ever was one, says Poll. I tip my hat to them, because they were brave and took a chance on an unusual script and first-time director.

Says SKE President of production William Horberg: Charlie Bartlett personifies each of us in that awkward time between adolescence and adulthood. Between the creativity of Gustins script and Jons vision, we saw the potential for a very humorous and touching homage to the yearning and passion of high school days.

Actor Anton Yelchin

The filmmakers began casting with finding the right actor for Charlie, a tough task, because Charlie is not your standard, stereotypical school rebel or nerd, but a distinctive mix of buoyant idealism and savvy scheming. Poll began asking around for recommendations, which led him to Anton Yelchin, the son of two Russian figure skaters who first came to the fore in David Duchovnys House of D and went on to star as Hank Azarias son on Showtimes series Huff and to play a kidnapping victim in Nick Cassavetes Alpha Dog.

Hundreds auditioned for the role, but Yelchin sealed the deal in his first meeting with Poll. He blew me away, recalls Poll. I just felt like heres Charlie Bartlett. He was incredibly empathetic and really funny. Anton said it was the honesty and optimism of Charlie that drew him to it.

Poll and Yelchin started having intense conversations about who Charlie is, and what he experiences as he becomes the school version of a prescription-peddling Freud. After experiencing his moment of Ritalin euphoria, Charlie wants to spread some happiness–which leads to unexpected results. Like Charlie, Antons smart and he came prepared with a million ideas, Poll recalls.

Yelchin felt that Charlies confidence and optimism are borne out of his tough upbringing without a father and with overwhelmed mother who needs more mothering than he does. I really wanted to show what drives Charlie to act in such comical ways, Yelchin says. I wanted to show that he had to parent himself, and that he responds to his own sadness with humor. For Yelchin, the challenge was in straddling the films comedy and depth. The role calls on everything from slapstick to drama, he notes, and it left a lot of room for experimentation. It was a thrill being able to come up with so many ideas. As for Charlies controversial occupation as psychiatric drug dealer, Yelchin says: Its one of those subjects that people have to deal with and I think this story is a great way to start the conversation.

Polls advice to Yelchin was to keep taking risks. Anton started off in such a strong place and his instincts are so right, that I really didnt have to do much, Poll says. Theres not a single scene where Anton didnt nail it from the start; he delivered animated physical comedy and captured the subtlest of moments. Anton appreciated Polls approach: Jons been so generous in giving me the freedom to explore Charlie and try different things with the character; I think Ive learned a lot about myself through the process.
Stellar Cast: Robert Downey Jr

Yelchin was especially thrilled to collaborate with Robert Downey Jr. as Principal Gardner, who becomes Charlie Bartletts nemesis in both his social and his love lives since he is also the father of the girl for whom Charlie has fallen head over heels. Roberts incredible to watch, just the fluidity of how he expresses himself. Ive learned so much from him, says Yelchin.

Poll always saw Principal Gardner as a man who was once a lot like Charlie, but was battered into a world-weary cynicism. I think Gardner can see himself in Charlie and responds to that at the same time that he reacts in another way as a Principal and a father, says the director.

From the start, Poll considered Robert Downey, Jr. the ultimate actor for the role and was not disappointed. Robert could not have been a more generous person for me or the other actors to work with, he says. Hes amazingly down-to-earth and filled with funny, bright, real ideas. And of course he brings a lot of real life stuff to the part. His character has a lot of issues but its refreshing to see Robert come in and do that.

Downey Jr. loved the script but admits to seeing a certain irony in being cast as the father and authority figure instead of the young rebel. We all talked about how I would have been Charlie Bartlett 20 years ago, the actor laughs. But thats part of what makes the relationship between Charlie and Gardner so interesting is that they see themselves in each other. You know, every wild guys secretly a square and every square is secretly a wild guy.

Regardless of that recognition, Charlie and Gardner find themselves in an epic student-Principal battle. I think Gardner really feels he is competing with Charlie for the affection of his daughter. But Charlies not the typical, difficult teenager that Gardners used to dealing with hes a lot smarter and has many more weapons in his arsenal. In the end though, Gardner puts Charlie through his paces by confronting him with a very real, adult crisis. It comes to a very funny and poignant climax.

Says producer David Permut of their scenes together: I loved watching Robert go into a rage and Anton not quite sure how to handle that it made for amazing emotional moments. That emotional alchemy also impressed screenwriter Gustin Nash. I remember watching one rehearsal between Anton, Robert and Kat and seeing such incredible chemistry, it felt really good, he says.

Hope Davis

Charlie Bartlett has an equally complex relationship with his extremely wealthy but completely overwhelmed mother, Marilyn, who is given to reading how-to-be-a-better-parent books in the hopes of connecting with her precocious son. Poll always believed Hope Davis would be great for the part and was absolutely thrilled when she accepted the role.

This is a really tricky, important character and she plays it perfectly, Poll says. Hope is someone who, in the matter of just a few lines, can bring a character alive with both humor and pathos. It was also one of those little grace notes of luck that the intimacy between Anton and Hope [who previously starred as mother and son in Hearts in Atlantis] was almost immediate and there was a real shorthand of mother and son.

Davis was instantly drawn in by the films compelling subject matter. I told the writer Gustin that I wish I had seen a film like this when I was 15 because its so empowering and its so much about being yourself and accepting who you are, she says. As for Marilyn, Davis notes that she is not your average mother. She continues: She lives on an estate and enjoys her pills and her cocktails and her music, but I think she also very loving. Its just that she really doesnt know how to get anything done or how to be really helpful in the real world.

The filmmakers were amazed by the way Davis was able to make Marilyn every bit as comical as she is tragic, and every bit as loved by Charlie as she is bewildered by him. We knew that Hope would be great, says Barron Kidd. She took what could have been a very simple, quirky character and turned it into a very rich portrait.