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Beholden to Holden

Charlie Bartlett is the latest variation on Catcher in the Rye

Anton Yelchin, as high school shrink Charlie Bartlett, is only the latest screen incarnation of J.D. Salinger's immortal Holden Caulfield. (Ken Woroner/Sidney Kimmel Entertainment/Associated Press)
Anton Yelchin, as high school shrink Charlie Bartlett, is only the latest screen incarnation of J.D. Salinger's immortal Holden Caulfield. (Ken Woroner/Sidney Kimmel Entertainment/Associated Press)

“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies,” says Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Poor Holden: how would he feel if he knew he had become one of the most reproduced characters on film?

J.D. Salinger presumably shares his alter ego’s disdain for the cinema — he only let one of his stories, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, fall into Hollywood’s greasy hands. Reportedly, the 1949 release — which went under the chick-flicky title My Foolish Heart — appalled Salinger so much that he has never given up any rights since.

And yet, Holden — sardonic, removed, askance — has been a protean figure in the teen movie genre for over 50 years. Holden’s first filmic incarnation may have been James Dean as Jim Stark in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, four years after Catcher in the Rye became a worldwide publishing phenomenon. Jim, collar up to the world, was more of a teen existentialist than Holden, whose malaise actually did have a cause: his dead brother, Allie. But Dean’s rebel and Salinger’s Holden are both wounded and arrogant beyond their years, feeling the world far too deeply. “I felt sorry as hell for …” says Holden, finishing the sentence with everyone and everything, from ugly girls to ducks.

Every few years — or less — there’s a coming-of-age movie in which a white boy in a prosperous setting confronts the “phoniness” of the adult world. Usually, he broods his way through the hypocrisy (The Graduate, The Breakfast Club, Tadpole); sometimes he laughs it off (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off); maybe he even retraces Holden’s steps through a lost weekend in New York (Igby Goes Down). Teenaged girls are rarely set apart from the crowd in the same way; their on-screen goal, and trauma, is a desperation to fit in (Mean Girls; all John Hughes movies). A couple of recent exceptions that prove that being a wisenheimer isn’t just a boy thing both star a fresh female Holden, Ellen Page: Juno and The Tracey Fragments.

The new American film Charlie Bartlett obeys the Holden schematics, with a pharmaceutical, epoch-appropriate twist. Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a preppy mess, kicked out of yet another leafy northeastern private school and sent to the local public high. He arrives in the freaks-and-geeks quad of Generic Secondary with a briefcase in his hand and a hard-drinking, eccentric mother (sympathetically played by Hope Davis) waving him off from the backseat of the family limo.

The high school's principal's daughter (Kat Dennings) seeks counsel in Charlie's stall/office. (MGM)
The high school's principal's daughter (Kat Dennings) seeks counsel in Charlie's stall/office. (MGM)

Charlie’s essential Holden-ness is that he is consistently himself, and that self is non-conformist, a bit oddball, even. Charlie enjoys pounding ’70s soft rock on the grand piano and dressing like Alex P. Keaton. Though his first day at school begins with a hair wash in the toilet — the school bully doesn’t appreciate said briefcase, or, as Charlie corrects him, “attaché” — soon the kids come round to Charlie’s way of being. This is in no small part because he’s scamming Ritalin, Prozac and an apothecary’s worth of anti-anxiety meds from his family’s on-call psychiatrist. Charlie becomes a teen Dr. Phil, disseminating drugs to his fellow students in need with the help of a diagnostic manual and holding court in the school’s foul washroom.

What he really becomes, though, is an ear for the whining masses. “I’m helping these kids. Nobody else is helping them,” he says. Soon, kids are showing up to Charlie’s stall/office more to talk than to medicate, making a case for psychiatry over pills.

Many of the Holden films are in conversation with each other: Charlie Bartlett has a Ferris Bueller moment in which he struts the halls, loved by all; the crest on Charlie’s jacket also showed up in Igby and Rushmore; Rushmore referenced The Graduate, with middle-aged Bill Murray and teen Jason Schwartzman sharing Holden attributes. (In the film, it’s the aging, disenfranchised Murray who sinks in the swimming pool, going even deeper than Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock.)

Charlie Bartlett’s contempt for the casual drug abuse in modern parenting has a pointed relevance, but the rest feels antique. Is this particular brand of hero just too familiar by now? Writer Gustin Nash attempts to inject new blood, adding a nonsensical, half-nutty principal (Robert Downey Jr.) with a foxy, Goth daughter (Kat Dennings). But Charlie is an oddly un-dynamic teen. Instead, the familiar superficial details of alienated upper-class youth — the (now empty) swimming pool, the lonely mansion — get more attention than the character’s inner life.

In Catcher, Holden has typical teen myopia, but the book is also a portrait of grief — his brother Allie’s death imbues his every reaction. (That death is the micro-sadness standing in for a larger postwar sadness that Salinger alludes to and fleshes out in his later work.) I have a feeling that if Catcher came before a studio executive today as a potential hot property, Salinger would get this note back: “Just a dead brother? Can we up the stakes, please? Drugs? Rape? Who cares about one little brother and a baseball glove???”

Recent Holden movies make the psychological wounds deeper and trendier. In Igby Goes Down, young Igby (all of these movies hang an offbeat, Holdenesque name on their boys to mark the territory), played by Kieran Culkin, is also kicked out of prep school and wanders New York. His mother is a pill popper and his father is in a mental institution and there’s a euthanasia plotline and that guy in the institution might not be his father at all. In the relatively restrained Charlie Bartlett, Charlie’s father is absent (I won’t spoil), and his mother is a functioning drug addict, which is what she’s encouraging Charlie to become.

But it doesn’t matter how epic the backstory when Charlie, like Igby, is just too self-assured, too unfazed to be interesting. This type of Holden has been overly Buellered; divorced from the hurt, crippled by sass. Many cinematic variations suffer that fundamental misreading of Salinger’s novel: Holden thought he was mature, but of course he was a most unreliable narrator. Caught in the liminal zone between adolescence and adulthood, the movie Holdens believe they are smarter than they are, and their damage — the real meat of the character — falls to the wayside.

Taken back to the Catcher basics, teen films have more room to breathe; without the melodrama, they can better play to the gentleness that makes the Holden figure so beloved. In the bittersweet Rushmore, young Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is a comedic variation on Holden. Max’s pain over his mother’s death is sublimated into a singular focus on his adopted home, the Rushmore Academy (he stages Serpico; is president of the beekeepers club). Of course, he’s ultimately kicked out, and does cruel things to the people who love him.

But despite his charm, Max’s arrogance isn’t to be revered. That film soars because it refuses to entirely buy the line that kids are smarter than adults, gifted with secret vision. (It’s okay to believe this a little, but not a lot, or else unbearable smugness sets in.) Max has to nuance his worldview. He moves away from his inner Holden, toward something more compassionate, broader, closer to adult. Is this a great loss? Salinger, who has an entirely romantic view of children, might think so. But when one revisits Catcher in the Rye as an adult, Holden’s crisis isn’t worthy of celebration — his adolescence is a liability, not a virtue. And as Holden might have predicted, that’s something the movies rarely get right.

Charlie Bartlett opens Feb. 22.

Katrina Onstad is the film columnist for CBCnews.ca.

CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window.

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