Somehow your past always finds its way into your future – particularly if it’s something, shall we say, questionable, that you may have done or didn’t do. And even moreso if it’s something from your youth. Let’s face it. When we’re young and in those angst-filled teen years, although at the time we think we know everything, we don’t, and quite often worry more about being labeled, branded, cast off, and not being “accepted” rather than doing what’s right or wrong, all of which provides us a valuable education in the future when the actions come up to bite you in the butt. Such is the case with CHARLIE BANKS who gets the education of a lifetime during his freshman year of college; an education that is carefully crafted and examined thanks to the skill of first time feature director, Fred Durst (yep – THAT Fred Durst, frontman to Limp Bizkit).
A likeable, intelligent, but nerdy guy, Charlie, with his 70’s Brady Bunch “fro”, slight overbite, timid timid bookwormish persona and rather “bourgeois” Greenwich Village lifestyle has only one real friend, Danny. Best friend and protector, although with a privileged lifestyle similar to Charlie, Danny is street savvy and streetwise, even at the tender age of 10 or 11. And of course, then there’s Mick. The outcast of the elementary school age group, Mick smokes, chases women (and I mean, women) hangs out with gangs and gives every indication of being a cross between a bad boy Tony Manero, Stanley Kowalski and a real life Marlon Brando in his youth. Danny can hold his own with Mick and, in fact, calls him a friend. On the other hand, Charlie, while fascinated with Mick’s characterization and behavior, is petrified of him and see his great propensity for violence.
Fast forward a few years to high school and Charlie’s fears about Mick are witnessed first hand as they meet up again at a party where Mick’s personality turns to the dark side and he beats up two guys, stomping the face of one. Fearful for himself and for anyone that may come up against Mick, Charlie goes to the police who, based solely on Charlie’s eyewitness account, arrest Mick. But, fear, a need to belong and not wanting to branded a “rat” or “snitch” or get on Mick’s bad side, Charlie recants his story to the police and Mick is released. Luckily for Charlie, Mick doesn’t know who was responsible for his arrest in the first place.
Fast forward a few more years to college. Danny and Charlie are doing well with collegiate life. Studious, chasing well-to-do blue-blooded preppie society girls, participating in the requisite partying, life couldn’t be better. Charlie is enamored with auburn haired and beauteous Mary. Always perfect in her pearls, she may look like a porcelain doll but has a carefree and adventurous spirit and outlook on life. Danny has his eye on Mary’s best friend, Nia, who comes from Greek wealth and aristocracy but acts like the girl next door. Mentoring all of them is Leo, and over-the-top, flamboyant, free-wheeling spendthrift who thinks nothing of dropping $200,000 on a boat (think Robert Downey, Jr.’s character in “Less Than Zero”) for a weekend sail or calling in his private jet to fly the group to a weekend in the Hamptons. But this idyllic life changes for everyone when Mick suddenly appears on scene.
Allegedly wanting to get out of the city for some fresh air, Mick called upon his old friendship with Danny to wrangle an invite to bunk with the boys for a few days, much to the chagrin of Charlie who now sees his past meeting up with the future. Does Mick now know that Charlie was responsible for his arrest so many years ago? Is Mick here for revenge? Why is Mick here? Panicked, afraid and curious, Charlie’s once carefree college life takes on a completely new tone, particularly when Mick is taken under Leo’s wing and turns “preppie” and Mary shifts her attentions from Charlie to Mick.
Surprisingly, Mick fits right in with the “bourgeois” collegiate life and the distance and trepidation between Charlie and Mick seems to disappear. Charlie sees a change in Mick that is encouraging and endearing, but most importantly, Mick sees hope for his own life where he once had none. But, like I said, the past has a way of catching up with the present and it doesn’t take long for the truth to rear it’s ugly head and Mick’s true purpose with this “new leaf” of life is revealed, forcing Charlie to now face his past with brutal honesty.
While the film is about “Charlie Banks”, I have to start with the character of Mick and Jason Ritter’s performance. Ritter blew me out the water. He is fantastic and, dare I say, is already far superior to his father as an actor. His range of emotion is incredible and his ability to turn on a dime with personality changes shows his ability to hone in on a very careful balancing act. Clearly, he drew on Travolta’s Tony Manero for his character influence (particularly in “Staying Alive” – the sequel to “Saturday Night Fever”) so it comes as no surprise that Ritter’s nickname on set was “Manero.” He commands every scene with an intensity and magnetism from which you can’t turn away.
I was disappointed with Jesse Eisenberg. Although perfectly cast as the nerdy bookworm, Charlie Banks, having also just seen him in the upcoming “Adventureland”, he seems to be a one trick pony. He has one vapid painful look 90% of the time and no matter what role, always looks unhappy and put upon. Even in an interview he sits quite tacit and unanimated. There is one scene, however, that sells Eisenberg and that is when Charlie walks into the dorm room only to find Mick there with Danny. That is Eisenberg’s shining moment as his shock turns to trepidation and fright. A very tacit scene where Eisenberg is concerned but emotionally charged with his facial expressiveness.
Eva Amurri just keeps getting better with every performance, adding more texturization to each character that she portrays and here is no different. As Mary, she illuminates the screen, radiating pure energy. And may I just say, that girl can really show terror and scream!!!!! And do it convincingly!!
Written by Peter Elkoff, I must confess I am somewhat disappointed with certain aspects of the script, given Elkoff’s excellence with “Ugly Betty” and “Six Degrees.” There is more of a vignette feel and lack of cohesiveness as to the individual stories of the principals and their interlacing. Screening the film, I felt as if each character and many of the scenes were written separately and then “pasted” together. The story just feels like it’s missing something; like there is a gaping hole and the piece don’t always fit. A great sense of disconnect. Leo, just drops off the map and so does Nia, giving us no real resolution to their characters, especially in light of their significance and importance to the ultimate crescendo. Where Elkoff excels, however, is with the character of Mick and the relationship between Mick and Charlie. I don’t think the film is as much about Charlie’s education, but Mick’s. Charlie always knew Mick’s true colors and time and time again was proven right in his feelings, but Mick is the one that really goes through the learning process, and is given a hope that we see and feel. But the tension and dynamic that is created in the reunion dorm scene is worth the price of admission on all counts – the performances of Ritter and Eisenberg, the scripting of the scene and Fred Durst’s direction – all are superb.
As for Durst, first and foremost, kudos for eliciting superlative performances from Ritter and Amurri. As for the overall film, Durst has a very discerning and perceptive eye. The pacing is well conceived and artful, with a deliberate progression, although I would have liked a more explosive climax. That shortcoming, I believe, is due to some of those “gaping holes” in the script. While Durst has impressive credits as a music video director, a feature film is a quite different experience and with CHARLIE BANKS, one would be hard pressed to believe this is his first feature. The visual look is so important to a coming of age film of this era and ilk and Chad Detwiler’s production design and adherence to period is exemplary, as is the costuming of John Glaser and Elizabeth Shelton. The icing on the cake is the soundtrack – a must have for any music collection. Nostalgic, period perfect, number one hits. Boy would I like to know the music budget on this film!
Societal commentary, some magnetic performances, life lessons learned – or not, coming of age, trust, friendship. THE EDUCATION OF CHARLIE BANKS is an education for us all.
Charlie – Jesse Eisenberg
Mick – Jason Ritter
Danny – Chris Marquette
Mary – Eva Amurri
Directed by Fred Durst. Written by Peter Elkoff. Rated R. (100 min)