Charlie (a very likeable Yelchin) is expelled from public school for manufacturing fake IDs and, despite his well-heeled background and chauffeur-driven lifestyle, finds himself at a regular high school. There he's not at all popular. Not until he starts faking symptoms of various mental disorders to his shrink in order to sell his prescription drugs to fellow pupils.
Then everybody loves him and he's instantly transformed into "The Man", catching the eye of the principal's pouting daughter Susan (Dennings) and becoming a cross between an agony aunt and a drug dispensary to his fellow pupils.
Charlie Bartlett may just win the award as the most brazenly derivative film ever made. A more than capable cast cannot distract from the jaw-dropping amount of 'homage' chucked into the mix here.
Charlie is a smart man-child loner who lives with his wealthy, drug-addled mother (Davis) in a huge house (Harold And Maude). He talks to his teachers as though they were either his equals or his inferiors (Rushmore). He gains popularity at his new school and turns into a near folk hero (Ferris Bueller's Day Off). There's even a school bus scene (Napoleon Dynamite) complete with almost identical music. And let's not even talk about the repeated use of Cat Stevens' 'If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out' from the Harold And Maude soundtrack. At the end of this film it is reduced to a kind of cornball anthem sung by Susan in full-on Super Bowl solo at half time mode. And add to all this a poster which screams, "I AM THE NEW JUNO / NAPOLEON DYNAMITE AND YOU WILL LOVE ME."
Criticisms aside, Downey Jr is good as the alcoholic school principal, Gardener, who is struggling to maintain a relationship with his teenage daughter and driven to the brink by Charlie's precocious behaviour. Apart from their weakly-written exchanges, (Gardener: "You've taken everything from me. Why did you do that?" Charlie: "I'm just a kid"), the relationship between Yelchin and Downey is very watchable. Just with the sound down. And that's down to the lead actors having a far better understanding of what's going on than the writer. Any occasional flashes of promise throughout this film always prove to be borrowed from other superior offerings.
Why tackle the high school film genre if you're going to say nothing at all new about it? It's because, like the new kid in school, this movie just wants to be liked. And in that slightly creepy way that sees it turning up to school wearing the same clothes as you and deliberately sitting next to you in the canteen.