The opening scenes of Charlie Bartlett take place in an arena packed to the rafters with adrenalized teenagers waiting in frenzied anticipation for their hero to take the stage. At long last, amid smoke and flashing lights, a figure emerges and takes the microphone. "Hello," says the charismatic young man with preppy good looks. "My name is Charlie Bartlett. If there's anything I want you to remember tonight, it's that you are not alone." The crowd goes wild.
We've just witnessed the favorite daydream of Charlie Bartlett's 17-year-old protagonist. It is not unusual, of course, for a teen comedy to be fueled by the hormonal power of male adolescent fantasy, but this is something a bit out of the norm. Charlie's two strongest motivators—to be popular, and to genuinely help people—merge in his imagined success as a self-help guru. All the filmmakers have to do is combine Charlie's impulses with an abundance of intelligence and an acute lack of adult supervision, and all sorts of entertaining situations will develop.
Develop, they do. We learn quickly that Charlie's been kicked out of every private school on his well-heeled mother's list. Headmasters genuinely like the young man, but they can't turn a blind eye to industrious yet illegal endeavors like his fake ID service. Charlie's scams aren't for the money (he's got more of that than he can use); they're for the kudos. Now that he's run out of prep schools, Charlie will have to charm the teens at the local high school. It's a decidedly tougher crowd.
As smart as Charlie is, he doesn't have the sense not to wear his prep school blazer (complete with Latin crest) to his first day at Western Summit High. By the afternoon bell, he's been snubbed by the jocks and thrashed by the school's sadistic pot dealer. Charlie's mother takes one look at his pummeled face and does what any loving, heavily-medicated mother would do—she rings the family's on-call psychiatrist. The good doc decides what Charlie needs is Ritalin. Charlie (who clearly does not have ADD) takes his prescription, gets high, and realizes Ritalin is exactly what he needs—not for his own ingestion, but for the instant popularity he craves.
He becomes "business partners" with the dealer who would otherwise bully him indefinitely. Charlie discovers all he has to do is feign a variety of problems to a variety of psychiatrists; his easy access to prescription medications can be parlayed into a thriving cottage industry. But before long, the altruistic side of Charlie has him wanting to get his peers not so much high as better. Soon, he's opened up shop in the men's room, where he counsels his fellow students stall-to-stall and then prescribes meds appropriate to their symptoms. "Connecting teens and pharmaceuticals is like opening a lemonade stand in the desert," Charlie sagely observes.
Charlie becomes wildly popular, and seems genuinely effective in his makeshift "practice." But of course there are complications. Even as the school's administration is closing in on him, Charlie is falling for the principal's daughter. And, when one student gets worse instead of better, Charlie begins to realize he might be in over his head.