Over the past 20 years however, one film has consistently refused to be lumped into one of the typical genre categories and instead, stands alone on its own pedestal of greatness in the cult film hall of fame. I speak of course about the infamous Ferris Bueller and our journey on just one of his many elected days off.
But now someone new seems to be challenging Bueller’s long uncontested spot in high school cult film history. He’s someone who also refuses to be lumped into a single category, a character as memorable as Mr. Bueller, in a film with a truly unique perspective on teenage life. He’s Charlie Bartlett.
After being kicked out of the last private school in the area for running an illegal, albeit highly skilled, fake ID operation in his dorm room, Charlie is forced to attend public school and adjust to ordinary teen life.
Only, Charlie is anything but ordinary. So instead of letting the school change him, Charlie decides to change the school.
Anton Yelchin does an exceptional job portraying the character of Charlie Bartlett, a task he found both difficult and appealing.
“It really was the optimism and honesty of the character [that attracted me],” Yelchin says. “And to be honest I’m not very optimistic most of the time … but I just thought he had a really great way to approach life. Whether I could approach life this way was a different question. So I thought it would be really interesting to look into that and explore that. He really is an incredible sort of person; I wanted to be able to get in his head.”
Jon Poll took on the task of directing the film and for a long time wasn’t sure who to cast in the role of Charlie. Then one day Paul saw Yelchin’s performance in House of D and knew he had found his Charlie.
“I said to Jay [Roach, one of Charlie Bartlett’s producers], ‘you’ve gotta see this scene from House of D. He’s so real. He’s so charming. He’s so funny all at once! That’s what we need for Charlie!’” Yelchin says. “There was never any doubt that Anton was going to be Charlie Bartlett.”
In the film, Charlie takes up house in the men’s bathroom at school to hold self-help sessions for the students. Thanks to his family having an on-call psychiatrist and his easy access to medication, Charlie then sells the pills to his peers at a reasonable price.
“Everyone said, ‘Are you crazy?! You cannot make an R-rated movie with kids and drugs,’” Poll says about the struggles in getting the film made. “The film is not saying that there’s anything wrong with these drugs. We just wanted to point out that maybe some people are given these drugs too easily, especially at young ages. We kind of played fast and loose with it for humor’s sake, but there’s a lot of seven-year-olds being given Ritalin. I personally have to wonder … if you have a boy whose eating sugar all day and playing video games, maybe there’s another reason he’s a little hyped up.”
The film shows the serious side of casual drug use after a student takes one too many pills and Charlie gets busted by his school principal/girlfriend’s depressed father, played brilliantly by Robert Downey Jr.
Poll was elated to get Downey Jr. for the role.
“The first thing I said to Robert on the phone was, ‘do you realize that 20 years ago, this [Charlie] would have been you?’ And he laughed and said, ‘yes, very much.’ One of the first things he said on the phone call was, ‘I know the film is about another character, and I’m here to support that character. I understand how I fit into the movie.’ He was very brave about dealing with issues of his own and how they’re reflected back through the film. It was great having him on set to talk about that stuff, and I think every actor on set of every age truly enjoyed being around him.”
Poll continues to praise Downey, saying, “There was never a moment where any idea came up that he didn’t go, ‘Yes, yes! Let’s do it!’”
Yelchin and Downey Jr. have many key scenes together throughout the film, keeping up the classic rebel-student vs. establishment-teacher theme of high school. On set though, the two had quite the opposite relationship.
“It was really one of the first experiences I have had where I would consciously sit and learn from someone,” Yelchin reflects on his time working with Downey Jr. “I would sit and watch him in utter amazement because his range and understanding of the freedom he has as an actor is so eye-opening. The amount of things you can do and the freedom that you have, obviously within the confines of the story and the scene, but watching him experiment with what he wanted to do and finding the right thing was so incredible. I loved being off camera and just watching him work. I think he is like no other actor out there. Robert is in his own category of actors, in the way he approaches the characters he does and the way he uses his body … it’s just incredible to watch.”
The cast and crew of the film seem to flow perfectly together and help each other to create an instant classic with a message, one that comes from the students themselves and not their adult authority figures.
Yelchin gives his own perspective on high school.
“To me, high school, and school in general is such an unhealthy place,” he starts. “Every teenager is in the middle of this hormonal explosion, and they put 1,000 of them in one place. I mean, whoever came up with the idea wasn’t thinking very straight. You’re supposed to come up with healthy, normal people, but they’re putting all of these imbalanced people together and expecting them to learn. It makes no sense to me.”
“We’re trying to give an honest voice to teenagers,” Poll adds, explaining his view of the film.
It’s a voice that’s captured by the film in Charlie’s need for self-fulfillment, in the principal’s quest to please his teenage daughter and in the lines of students who wait to voice their problems to Charlie during his restroom therapy sessions. It’s a voice that will carry itself with you for a long time after the film has ended.
Charlie Bartlett releases in theaters Feb. 22.