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Review: Rob Reiner’s Being Charlie – “Nick Robinson’s performance alone makes it all worth it”

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By a fortuitous coincidence, just as the IT reboot has been released in cinemas, the latest effort from Rob Reiner finally arrives in the UK. The Oscar-nominated filmmaker who directed two of the most successful Stephen King’s cinematic adaptations ever – Stand By Me (1986) and Misery (1990) – hasn’t really been making box office hits or critical darlings over the past decade but his name is usually a guarantee of quality entertainment with a poignant message.

Being Charlie, a coming of age tale tackling the struggle of a young man with drug addiction, is an affecting character study that in spite of meandering a bit about what it’s really trying to say, wins you over thanks to the sympathetic qualities of its easy-on-the-eye leading man and young-star-on-the-rise Nick Robinson (Jurassic World, The Kings Of Summer).

After premiering at the 2015’s Toronto International Film Festival, the film was released in the US in May 2016 but the tepid reception is probably what led to this delayed, straight-to-home-entertainment release across the pond. The distribution fate of the film over here is not surprising but kudos to Cockerel Entertainment for releasing it. Robinson’s performance alone makes it all worth it and that’s a lot to say about an actor’s ability to keep the viewer’s attention and the story’s tension alive in spite of the story’s flaws.

Charlie is the 18 year-old son of a former actor turned politician (Cary Elwes) who’s running for Governor of California and is seemingly more concerned with his career’s success than his son’s well being. The troublesome boy has been sent to a drug treatment clinic in Utah and is now 6 months sober but his father is trying to keep him away until the election to avoid any scandal.

The story kicks off with Charlie breaking out of the facility and hitchhiking his way back to Los Angeles where he’s obviously not greeted with a warm welcome. Even with his beloved mother’s pleas to keep him at home, Charlie is sent by his dad to an adult rehab facility to lay low during the rest of the campaign. It’s a compromise to avoid being shipped back to Utah under the threat of allegedly having to serve time for vandalising the place before breaking out if he doesn’t comply.

Charlie thinks he can just go through the motions with this new programme but he finds a therapist and a guardian who are ready to challenge him, especially when he falls in the alluring net of troubled “inmate” Eva (Homeland’s Morgan Saylor). Confused and overwhelmed by his feelings for the complicated girl and his family drama at home, the only person Charlie can count on is his best friend Adam (the excellent Devon Bostick). The problem is that despite meaning well, Adam is at heart a party boy who copes with life by drinking, smoking weed and snorting lots of cocaine – you do the math…

Films about drug addiction are tricky to pull off. Some of the most accomplished ones are original and stylish pieces of cinematic storytelling like Requiem For A Dream and Trainspotting or raw indie dramas like Smashed. The main issue with Being Charlie is that it’s too polished to feel real and by the time it dares to convey the gritty, most shallow side of drug addiction, it feels like the filmmakers haven’t earned the realism they try to deliver.

There are two main thematic threads in the film. One is how and where to find life’s meaning and realising that we can’t rely on others’ approval or love to achieve that. Delving deeper into it could spoil the intense nature of the final act but suffice to say Charlie has to face his demons and learn to accept and believe in his own worth if he wishes to get out of the tunnel he’s stuck in.

The other main theme – trust – stems from the boy’s complicated relationship with his father. Director Rob Reiner’s son Nick wrote Being Charlie alongside former rehab mate Matt Elisofon, basing the story on his personal struggle with drug addiction. I’m not privy to their real-life experience but it’s easy to imagine that relationship issues between father and son played an important part in it. No matter how different the film is from reality, one can’t help but wonder if Being Charlie could’ve fared better under the helm of someone not personally involved in the story.

Despite not fully living up to its attempt at genuinely portraying the hardships of addiction, the film eventually gets there and it’s commendable for sharing a positive message of self-empowerment. Most of the credit goes however to the spectacular performance of leading man Nick Robinson, who convincingly embodies teen angst and anguish without ever being artificial or over the top.

Drawing the audience’s sympathy is no easy task when you’re portraying a rich and spoiled LA teenager, who falls into drug addiction. Yet, Robinson effortlessly pulls it off by subtly capturing those demons in a relatable fashion. Frankly, it almost feels wrong to still refer to the 22 year-old Seattle native as a rising star. He is a fully-fledged actor whose potential has barely scratched the surface and we can’t wait to see what he’s capable of – watch out for his upcoming lead role in next year’s YA adaptation Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda.

On the other hand, Rob Reiner – who has also entertained an acting career alongside his filmmaking one – has clearly plenty to say still. His high profile days may be behind him, but his cinematic curiosity is alive and kicking. Up next for the prolific filmmaker there are two politically charged movies: LBJ, out in the US in November, is a take on America’s 36th president Lindon Johnson whereas the recently completed Shock And Awe follows a group of journalists covering George Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq in 2003. Both films star Woody Harrelson and we’ll definitely be watching.

Being Charlie is out now in the UK on DVD and VOD via Cockerel Entertainment.

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