Anton YELCHIN brings an irresistible mix of suppressed anger and longing, innocence and precocity to his role as the title character in “Charlie Bartlett.” He plays a crafty misfit who makes Ferris Bueller and Max Fischer look like rank amateurs.
Opening Friday, the film tells the story of a rich kid with an outsider’s complex. The product of an absentee father and his well-medicated mother, Marilyn (Hope Davis), Charlie’s expelled from his last elite academy -- this time, for making fake driver’s licenses -- and sent to public school.
After a few rough days that culminate in a sound beating in the boys’ bathroom, Charlie concocts a scheme to win over the bullies, the jocks and the drama geeks. He plays shrink to his classmates, convinces his own on-call psychiatrist that he’s suffering from their maladies, then sells the doctor’s prescriptions to the wounded parties.
Along the way, he attracts the beauty Susan, played by Kat Dennings, who is the daughter of Robert Downey Jr.'s long-suffering principal.
“Charlie Bartlett” could be a breakout role for Yelchin, 18, who earned critical notice for his performances in 2001’s “Hearts in Atlantis” and last year’s “Alpha Dog.” (Next year, he’ll play Chekov in J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise.) Yelchin puts on an energetic show -- in his underwear, no less -- depicting Charlie’s inadvertent “Ritalin euphoria.” In a scene where Charlie auditions for a school play, Yelchin delivers a monologue as a teenage girl with serious panache. Later, he sings a startlingly Danny Kaye-esque version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
For Yelchin, all the attention-getting antics had to be more than just empty, sarcastic gestures. Like his other character choices -- Charlie’s compulsive need to introduce himself, his ramrod-straight posture -- he wanted the behavior to be grounded in something honest. Ultimately, the actor agreed with director Jon Poll and screenwriter Gustin Nash that Charlie was suffering from neglect.
“He has a desire for attention because he’s never had it,” Yelchin said. “He was having to parent himself.”
Yelchin’s own parents have always been supportive of his creative aspirations. Professional Russian figure skaters who came to the United States soon after their son was born, they have championed his career since he first began auditioning at age 10. In fact, it was their idea to enroll their only child in acting classes to help him conquer his shyness. Instead, it launched his career.
“The older I’ve gotten the more obsessed I’ve become of nit-picking every detail of a character to death,” Yelchin said. “Because then you’re fully free to be them.”
Where you’ve seen him
Anton Yelchin, 18, first got noticed in the 2001 drama “Hearts in Atlantis” starring as a fatherless boy drawn to a mysterious stranger played by Anthony Hopkins. But his portrayal of the doomed teen in last year’s “Alpha Dog” -- a drama in which Yelchin shared a wrenching scene with Justin Timberlake -- earned him his first real critical praise. Before that, he’d costarred opposite Robin Williams and Tea Leoni in the David Duchovny-directed dramatic comedy “House of D,” and in 2006, he had a recurring role on “Huff,” the Showtime series starring Hank Azaria.