If Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero was adapted for modern audiences, it might turn out something like the uneven Being Charlie. In fact, Being Charlie itself feels like a remake of the 1987 movie adaptation of Less Than Zero, which was mostly annoying and not very good but had a great turn from Robert Downey Jr., the kind of desperate, all-in performance that made you realize the dude was teetering on the edge of something.
Being Charlie never reaches that level of emotional resonance, although director Rob Reiner’s son Nick wrote it about his own battle with addiction. But it has a similarly great performance from Nick Robinson at its core, more good work from the up-and-coming actor.
Too often lately Robinson has been the best part of meh movies, like the flopped young-adult adaptation The 5th Wave and the mega-hit but very average Jurassic World (which I didn’t like; feel free to attack me at @roxana_hadadi if you so wish). The same goes for Being Charlie, in which Robinson plays a teenage heroin addict struggling to turn his life around after being force by his parents to choose between rehab or homelessness.
If you saw Robinson in The Kings of Summer, you can imagine that character, Joe, becoming Charlie here: frustrated, aimless, chasing something that isn’t quite clear. Is it love? Acceptance? Fulfillment? Charlie’s only 18—what does he know about life?
Charlie describes himself as a “lean mean joint-smoking machine, with zero fucks given now that I’m 18” during a freestyle rap session, but to his parents, famous-actor-turned-gubernatorial-hopeful David (Cary Elwes) and loyal mother Liseanne (Susan Misner), Charlie is a mystery. It’s implied that he started using heroin and hard drugs when he was in high school, but was pulled out as his addiction worsened; other friends have moved onto college or burnt out, while he still doesn’t have a high school diploma. David and Liseanne have put him in different rehab centers and nothing has worked: he keeps getting kicked out, keeps using again, keeps the cycle going. The family doesn’t have conversations, at least not as a trio—Liseanne talks to Charlie and to David, but neither father nor son talk to each other.
Things finally seem to take a turn, though, when David threatens Charlie: If he doesn’t do 60 days in a program, Charlie will face charges for stealing some prescription drugs in another state. Now that he’s 18, the charges would be serious—but David, with his fame and clout, can make them go away if Charlie legitimately gives sobriety another shot.
There are complications, though. Charlie develops a love interest in rehab, a big no-no, notes his outpatient facility counselor Travis (Common, delivering yet another wonderfully lived-in performance). David refuses to acknowledge that his pushing Charlie into rehab may be more for keeping up appearances with his gubernatorial campaign than actual concern for his son. And it’s never really clear why Charlie started using—or whether he really wants to stop.
Although the film doesn’t pull punches with its depictions of the dangers of drug use and the way it tears families apart, sometimes Being Charlie seems to languish in typical misunderstood-teenage-boy stuff. It’s most disappointing that the script gives Charlie a real personality and interests (he loves standup comedy and wants to pursue a career in it; he has a believable relationship with his mother) but not a backstory regarding why he started doing drugs. There’s a throwaway “It was never about the drugs” line, but given that Charlie is so young and so addicted, the backstory feels weak.
That’s not to say, though, that Robinson doesn’t do his best with the material he’s given. His sarcastic delivery is perfect for the character, especially with lines like “Can you never speak again? That would be great” directed to a mediator who tries to bring him into an intervention, and that comedic timing helps sell the idea of him as an aspiring standup, too. But this isn’t like the aforementioned Less Than Zero, in which Bret Easton Ellis created a fully realized culture of adolescent depravity. Charlie does drugs, but not enough of his surrounding world is presented to gain an understanding of how he got where he is.
And there’s also distracting, ham-fisted stuff, like Charlie throwing a rock through the stained-glass church window at his rehab facility before he leaves on his 18th birthday, or the myriad gay-prostitution jokes, or an embrace at the end that is supposed to signify a step forward but lacks the emotional resonance needed to make it meaningful.
That clunky, Hallmark ending can be forgiven, somewhat, if you think that the Reiners wanted to give some hope for Charlie since he’s the character standing in for Nick. But the ending is presented in such a schmaltzy that it feels unearned. That doesn’t diminish Robinson’s performance, but in Being Charlie, he’s the Robert Downey Jr. of an otherwise so-so film.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Guttenbergs