Being Charlie misses the mark on truly exposing some major emotional and political truths.
Being Charlie is an addict story, a rehab story, a coming-of-age story and a family drama in which none of the plots are fleshed out enough to make for a satisfying conclusion. The Rob Reiner film spends so much time rushing through moments rife with potential for meaningful meditation that it is reminiscent of when one presses mental fast-forward in times of self-reflection in fear of drudging up any real pain.
The film follows Charlie (Nick Robinson), son of former-actor-turned-politician David Mills (Cary Elwes), through a stint in rehab, though not the teen’s first. In treatment, he challenges counselors, falls in love, gets clean, performs in a talent show and makes friends in a story sped up so quickly that the audience may feel as though they have taken some drugs themselves. Characters—few of which will be named here as few are developed enough to make a name worth mentioning—come and go, sometimes going without ever coming back and with little explanation as to why. Women are objects to be talked about, and there are only two with a reasonable amount of lines: the love interest Eva (Morgan Saylor) and the mother Liseanne (Susan Misner), both of whom are merely tools for Charlie’s release—Eva for his sexual release, Liseanne for his physical release from the program.
Reiner’s son Nick co-wrote the script with Matt Elisofon, both making their debut as screenwriters. Both men also spent time in and out of rehab facilities, a fact that gives a sense of authenticity to the story told in Being Charlie. The script may hold a lot of truths (about the rehab cycle, the types of people in treatment, the crumbling relationships around addicts), but there is an emotional distance that is never crossed by the end of the film, one that keeps the viewer from connecting too strongly with any character.
Not every character has to be likable. Being Charlie runs with that sentiment but to ends that make the film just as unlikable as the slew of underdeveloped heroes and villains. The Privileged-White-Teenage-Boy is already one of the most unlikable archetypes. While in The Kings of Summer Nick Robinson was able to bring some version of depth to the PWTB role, here his charming smile and best acting chops aren’t able to mask the stench of a rotting script.
While Charlie is supposedly a wannabe comic, the lines that draw the most laughter are not the ones from the snippets of stand-up. Just try to stifle the giggle that tickles the back of the throat when Charlie asks the man running the rehab center if he is trying to help people or just there for “courtside seats to human suffering.” Unfortunately the question that needs answering is not why the counselor is there but why Charlie is, something which the filmmakers seem to imply is an answer that comes at the end. When that answer is revealed, it is too shrouded in vagueness to create any sort of lasting impression.
The only emotional moment that has any resonance comes not from Charlie but from the PWTB #2, Charlie’s best friend, Adam (Devon Bostick). Bostick’s moment of emotional truth, one in which his talent manages to triumph over the juvenile script, is important. We know because the camera zooms in real tight on his face, just in case the exposition of a young man opening up about the pressures he faces at home—pressures which have lead him to extreme substance abuse—wasn’t enough of a hint. The moment fades into more dismal, cliché addiction tropes, but one thing is taken away: Bostick just stole the film and made the time spent watching this disaster unfold a little more palatably.
In the end, Being Charlie misses the mark on truly exposing some major emotional and political truths. In a brief moment, the halfway house leader (played by rapper Common) cautions Charlie about alternatives to rehab—including prison, where he had been for two years. This provides an excellent chance for commentary about the fact that all of the people seen in the treatment program are white, but the chance goes untouched. Instead we continue to follow our PWTB Charlie through his experience with hopefully his last go at treatment, a story which no doubt deserves to be told. It is just too bad it wasn’t told in a way to make the audience care.