Jon Poll & Jay Roach Offer New Prescription for High School Comedy

Could this be? A summertime teen flick with scruples? Somehow, they got into MGM’s Charlie Bartlett—the movie and the boy by that name—through some deft scripting and humanizing direction from Gustin Nash and Jon Poll respectively, both of them first-timers.

The man who match-made this improbably happy marriage of a debuting screenwriter and novice director is one of the movie’s producers, Jay Roach, himself a sometime director, who, on those occasions in the past, has employed Poll as a film editor for little pictures like Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers and two out of three Austin Powers escapades.

“Jon is a great editor,” Roach readily admits, “but he is also—and I know this from having sat in rooms with him for years—a great storyteller. He knows where the story is, how it should be structured and, importantly, what performances in each situation will serve the story best. I always thought he’d be a great director, but I was always terrified of losing him as an editor. I’d always exaggerate how horrible directing is—well, actually, it’s not that much of an exaggeration—how stressed out I was, but nothing could stop him.”

As it happened, Poll had been circling for an opening as a director for some time before Roach made it happen. “I read, like, a hundred scripts trying to find The One,” recalls Poll. “Because I knew how hard it is to direct, I wanted to be careful and find something I cared about. This, in all honesty, was the only movie I went after, that really excited me.”

Roach hones that honesty a little finer. Truth is, he says, Poll got to Charlie Bartlett by way of Youth in Revolt, another screenplay that Nash had knocked out in his spare time while he ignominiously toiled in a shopping-mall camera shop. “Jon called and said, ‘I’ve found a script that I might want to do. Maybe you could produce it with me.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He goes, ‘Youth in Revolt.’ I said, ‘Oh, my God! That’s Gustin Nash. I have his other script, which I think is even better than that one. You should read that one.’

“Well, he did—and he really wanted to do it. It was a good-scale movie to take on for a first-time director, so I took him to [lead producer] David Permut and said, ‘I really think this is the guy. I don’t think you should be out shopping it around. Just let him do it.’”

That testimonial did the trick and—presto!—turned Poll into a director. Lest this seem self-effacing of Roach, it must be said, while he had the script, he had no time to do it.

How he got the script remains a mystery to him. “It came to my office and had just been left on a desk. Literally. It was one of those screenplays that didn’t go through the normal channels, through the agents and through the people at my production company. I just happened to be wandering around at night, procrastinating on something else that I was working on, and just sat down at my assistant’s desk and started flipping through scripts. I picked up Charlie Bartlett and went, ‘Wow! Here’s a misfit kid who gets kicked out of a private school, then prescribes drugs that don’t work for him to his classmates in public school.’ You know instinctively this can’t be good, that it won’t work out well for him.”

This eccentric premise—a well-meaning, surprisingly innocent if industrious youth putting the high back in high school as a way of becoming very, very popular—is the hook that piqued Roach’s interest, and it works the same wonders on audiences. The irony of this cautionary tale is that it is R-rated for its Rx—not for its s-e-x—thus robbing the film to a substantial degree of the very market which it was made for and preaches to so directly.

But Roach is okay with the R: “We had a choice at a key place how to handle the idea of drugs in the film and what rating that might get us—and we’re sorta okay with it being an R-rated movie. That says to parents: ‘Kids shouldn’t come to this by themselves. It’s something that should be seen with parents and then discussed by kids and parents.’”

The counseling that accompanies the prescriptions is crucial here. Young Charlie hangs out his shingle on a bathroom stall in the boys’ lavatory and lends an ear to his peers about their demons so he can best get the medication they deserve—by regurgitating their stories on various posh psychiatrists’ couches around town. The villains of the pieces are the apathetic shrinks who don’t really listen and are too quick to prescribe drugs for what ails them—rather than the enterprising young man who exploits this flaw in the system.

Critics and audiences alike miraculously make the movie’s sharp right turn on to moral turf, says Roach. “You have to trust that they get the complexities of the character’s decision, and so far they’ve understood. It’s obviously a dysfunctional decision to start getting drugs for your friends as a way of getting popular, but the film shows there’s a price to pay for that.”

Roach feels Charlie Bartlett has an edge that sets it apart from The Breakfast Club and other films aimed at kids. “Charlie makes adult-like choices, as if he was an old soul, making mistakes an adult would make. Through the trial-and-error of his mistakes, he ends up doing a relatively wise thing.”

Poll is on the same page about this: “It’s a movie about making mistakes and surviving ’em. Charlie makes ’em. Every character in the movie makes ’em and gets through ’em.”

The film previewed in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, and Poll admits, “I was a little worried. We were going into a very conservative, Christian area to preview, and if there was anywhere we would have gotten flak, it would have been there. You could hear in the audience when the Ritalin stuff came up there was some concern, but most of that was alleviated by humor—and by the time you get to the end of the movie, people feel like they have been treated with enough respect, and that the characters have been, also. We didn’t really abuse the characters or the audience. I think that’s why they go with us.”

Prior to the picture becoming a sleeper hit at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Poll also previewed it at southern Vermont’s Putney High School—his own teen scene where he met his wife-to-be and where writer Nash (small world, isn’t it?) did a summer program.

“It was a little sketchy at first what the reaction would be like, coming in with a Hollywood movie like that, but they loved it. In fact, it was kinda insane because we got a standing ovation. These are smart, liberal, well-educated kids, and so many of them came up to us afterwards and said, ‘This movie felt real. We never see teen films where it feels like real people, that we know them and we identify with their problems.’ They felt they weren’t being spoken down to.

“For me, the big risk was: Can we get away with wearing our heart on our sleeve? Compared to a lot of movies made today in this age of Quentin Tarantino, the movie is very sweet and hopeful. But we got a little credibility by having it edgy and a bit dangerous.”

Much of the easy charm of the film is centrally located in the likable, lilting title performance by Anton Yelchin. He plays Charlie clear-eyed and sincerely concerned about his desperate clientele. There’s not a trace of the cynicism of Ferris Bueller or the eccentricities of Harold of Harold and Maude—two seem-alikes on a faster, curvier track.

“I saw a good hundred actors for that part, and he was literally The One,” says Poll. “I had met him before we saw everyone, and I really liked him. He said the two words that I felt most about the character: honest and optimistic. Anton has quite a wide range. He can do pure, silly, crazy physical comedy and then do really small, intimate scenes as well.”

Yelchin, late of House of D and Alpha Dog, was 11 years old when he first had Hope Davis for a mother (in 2001’s Hearts in Atlantis). Here she brings a vacant vulnerability that is just right for the role of a sad, overmedicated rich-ditz whose husband has been sentenced out of the picture for the duration—to The Big House (probably for some shady trading, given the splendor he has left her to wallow in alone). The apple of their eye hasn’t fallen far from that tree, and her first line of dialogue reflects her perverse pride in Charlie: “Well, you have to admit they look very authentic,” she says, assessing with hazy admiration the well-crafted fake IDs that’s getting her son booted out of private school.

In public school, his preppy appearance gets Charlie promptly pulverized—toilet-swabbed, to be specific—by the class bully (singer-songwriter Tyler Hilton, the Elvis of Walk the Line, in a fine turn). It also gets him a girlfriend (Kat Dennings); the bad news is she’s the daughter of the principal who’s battling his own addictions (Robert Downey, Jr., bringing a lot of personal baggage to the part and winning big-time).

“Robert is a world-class actor,” Poll trills. “As a first-time director, my biggest fear was: How am I going to direct Robert Downey, Jr.? Ironically, he was like a little kid. He’d do anything I asked. He’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea. Let’s go and run with it.’ There was never any ‘Oh, I don’t know if my character would do that.’ He was so game. As he put it, ‘I like to play.’ At the beginning, he said, ‘As long as I get to play, this will be fun.’”

There’s no problem getting insurance on Downey now, says Roach. “It’s one of those great stories where whatever he went through—the dark stuff—he has reached the upside of recovery. I think that’s why he was partly drawn to this. It’s about overcoming those things. As far as I can tell, he’s the sweetest, funniest, most professional guy there is.”

Downey’s professionalism was sorely tested by the 38-day shoot. “I was shamed by Jon’s efficiency,” Roach quips kindly. “I was horrified by it, what I had to do,” counters Poll.

“And Robert’s scenes were the toughest. All the scenes in his office—we had nine scenes in one day to do, and he came in and said, ‘Jon, how are we going to do this?’ I said, ‘Robert, I’m going to ask you to change your clothes’—because he had nine costume changes—‘change your clothes in the classroom next door. It’s the only way we’re going to do it. We’re going to shoot one side of the scene, shoot the other side of the scene, change your clothes, turn around, keep going back and forth.’ He said, ‘Okay, if you think we can do it, then that’s the way I’ll do it.’ We could never have done it otherwise.”

Poll hopes—and has every reason to hope—that Charlie Bartlett is just what the doctor ordered: at last, a teen flick that tells it like it is. “Honestly, I have a lot of affection for teenagers,” he says. “I still feel like a teenager, and I have a daughter, Zoey, who just turned 13. I was thinking of her when I made it. It’s funny now seeing it through her eyes.

“Robert’s son is a day older than Zoey. We often talked about our kids on the set and about the relationship in the movie between him and his daughter. He said, ‘Gus has already nailed his teen stuff. You and I—we really have to figure out the dad stuff now.’

“I really think that Charlie Bartlett is a movie for teenagers. The ones who have seen it so far have responded really well to it. I think it shows them a little more respect than most teenage movies do. There’s nothing wrong with American Pie or those other comedies, but hopefully this movie makes them feel like it’s representing them a little bit better.”