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Cinema in Focus: ‘Charlie Bartlett’

Setting the boundaries between adult responsibilities and carefree childhood opportunities.

3 Stars — Insightful

When a child is given responsibility to take care of a parent, their roles become reversed with the parent becoming child-like and the child becoming “parentified.” The advantage of such a shift in roles is that the child acquires abilities and insights far beyond that which their chronological age would imply. The disadvantage is that the child misses out on the carefree days of childhood under parental guidance and protection. That experience is insightfully presented in Jon Poll’s Charlie Bartlett.

Written and produced by Gustin Nash, the film’s title role of Charlie is played by the charming Anton Yelchin. Charlie lives on an estate with his mother Marilyn (Hope Davis). His father is not with them but has given Charlie the responsibility from the time he was young to “take care of his mother.” He took this assignment to heart and Marilyn continues to need his care.

Charlie has been expelled from nearly every private high school in the country, but Marilyn provides no parental guidance nor discipline and simply informs him he will have to attend public high school. Charlie has never attended a school where the students don’t wear the coats and ties of the privileged class. But his creative skills and entrepreneurial abilities quickly make him the center of his new student body. They also make him the target of the authorities, especially that of Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.).

Unlike most films about high school in which the principal and teachers are one-dimensional characters, Gardner is revealed to be a person placed in a role not of his choosing. Formerly a creative high school history teacher, he is now the principal. Uncomfortable with both the administrative responsibility and his disciplinary role with students, he has rebelled in his own way.

The tension in the film is not just due to this inevitable clash between Charlie and Gardner, however, but also to the attraction Charlie has for the principal’s daughter, Susan (Kat Dennings). At first unaware that Susan is the principal’s daughter, Charlie and Susan form a bond that is itself a threat to her father as he is raising her as a single parent.

We won’t reveal how these dual tensions converge or how Charlie uses his abilities to gain popularity and notoriety, but the solutions bring about a change in Charlie’s life such that he is able to let go of his parental role and accept his parents’ love and care. That healing outcome is one that all “parentified-children” need.

Discussion:

• The assignment Charlie receives from his father as only a young child was inappropriate. Have you ever been given more responsibility than your age or skill warranted? What happened?

• The attraction between Charlie and Susan was not only physical. What do you think brought the two together?

• The coping mechanism that Gardner used was destructive. What do you think would have been a better way to deal with the pain and frustrations of his life?

• When Charlie no longer provided the pharmaceuticals to his fellow students, they still wanted to talk to him. Why do you think this was so? Who do you talk to and why?

Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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