A Father And Son Tell A Father-And-Son Story In 'Being Charlie'
When you know the backstory behind Being Charlie, the wounds this film opens become so raw you can still see them bleeding. It follows the troubled 18-year-old addict son of an emotionally frigid movie star and politician. It's directed by Hollywood legend Rob Reiner, from a script co-written by his son Nick, who himself had fallen in and out of rehab centers as a teen.
This isn't just partially autobiographical. It often feels like the Reiners are letting us in on their counseling session, the one where they act out conversations with a third party pretending to be the other. "Charlie, is there anything you'd like to say to your father?" one counselor asks the protagonist during just such a session in the movie. He can probably think of a few things.
We are used to seeing the elder Reiner pull the puppet strings of emotion in his films, particularly in the last decade of his career with melodramatic fluff like The Bucket List and The Magic Of Belle Isle. But we're not used to him making a movie this naturalistic, this narratively messy, or this willing to alienate fans of the director's oeuvre — these teens behave badly without the parachute of nostalgia from Stand By Me. Chalk it up to the fruits borne by inter-generational collaboration. Being Charlie follows the expected sine-wave trajectory for a movie about addiction recovery, getting worse before things get better. But it does its business with a refreshing, naked honesty.
The terrifically talented Nick Robinson, in his best role since his breakout in The Kings Of Summer, has an unshakable charisma in his depiction of the fidgety, volcanic Charlie. We meet him clad in a loose-fitting suit, betraying his privileged upbringing, escaping a rehab center in rural Utah and hitching a ride back to his home in L.A. Charlie's not above swiping a bottle of Oxycontin from a stranger's dying mother, and he'll fall farther before all is said and done. So it's understandable his parents would order him back into a local clinic despite his insistence that all the group therapy doesn't work on him. Charlie's father, a former pirate-movie superstar running for governor of California, is being selfish, too, with his campaign ramping up and an obvious incentive to hide the unsavory details of his family life from the public.
It's hard to look at strangers quoting swashbuckling pirate lines to the dad, played by Reiner's swashbuckling The Princess Bride hero Cary Elwes, and not see strangers quoting Bride or All In The Family to Rob while Nick looks on. Reiner himself had flirted with running for governor in 2006, when he would've faced incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger — who also famously kept details of his personal life tucked away. By making their movie so true-to-life, the Reiners (along with co-writer Matt Elisofon) expose the specific traps of being a rich and famous kid, someone whose family has all the resources in the world to keep you from doing the exact destructive thing you wind up doing anyway. The story doesn't ignore the immense "affluenza"-style privilege at its core, but rather shows how such an upbringing seems to lead in many instances to its horrifying inverse. And, yes, this means guys like Charlie get infinite second chances not afforded to those without means, as illustrated when a counselor played by Common gives us a hint into his own background.
Relationships between father and son fray numerous times throughout the film. An aspiring stand-up comic, Charlie delivers a blistering routine about his dad at a halfway house talent show that finds its way online and threatens Papa's public image. Meanwhile, dad puts up staunch resistance to any attempts by Charlie's mother (Susan Misner) to reconcile the two, as such efforts interfere with his busy smile-for-the-people campaign trail. One big issue with the story is that the campaign feels like a screenwriter's sideshow, the excuse that keeps dad from directly confronting Charlie, rather than something that actually informs our approach to the character. Why does he want to be governor? Does he care about helping his state, including the addicted and homeless populations his son has bounced through? And what issues does he push, apart from, "My son is doing well"?
Given how familiar Being Charlie is, it says something that we can still become deeply invested in Charlie's fortunes. When he or his friends begin to pose dangers to themselves, we desperately hope they emerge OK; when he yearns for an overnight pass so he can spend a night with his rehab girlfriend (Morgan Saylor), we feel how important that dream of carnal lust is for both of them. Clawing your way back to reality makes you cling to every small relief. And if your dad's a filmmaker and you've got a story to tell, maybe you cling to that, too.
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