Written by his son Nick (and also Matt Elisofon), on whose struggles with addiction the script is based, “Being Charlie” begins as its titular hero (played by Nick Robinson, the mouth-breathing older brother from “Jurassic World”) celebrates his 18th birthday at a rehab center somewhere in a remote pocket of Utah. It’s pretty much the last place in the world where a teenage kid with rich parents and high cheekbones wants to be coming of age. It’s the last night that Charlie will spend at the facility — he packs up his stuff the next morning and walks off the reservation. By the time he hitches a ride back to his parents’ gated mansion in Los Angeles, Charlie has managed to hurl a rock through a church window and steal oxycontin from a woman with terminal lung cancer.
Needless to say, it’s hard to take his side when he strolls through the front door of his childhood home and finds himself ambushed by an intervention. Charlie’s mom (Susan Misner) and dad (Cary Elwes) have been put through the ringer by their only child, but this time is different — he’s legally an adult now, and he doesn’t have to live by their rules so long as he doesn’t live under their roof. It’s an inconvenient setup for Charlie’s old man, a retired movie star who’s only three weeks away from being elected Governor of California, and fears that his son might somehow muck up the campaign. Fortunately for the wannabe politician, the law is on his side. Charlie is told that he can either spend 60 days at a new rehab facility, or face charges (and potential jail time) for that whole church window incident. The choice practically makes itself.
“Being Charlie” springs to life when the film drops anchor in rehab and its eponymous hero begins to peek out from behind his addiction. He may not be a strict proxy for Nick Reiner — this narrative is a composite of its writer’s experiences, as well as those of people he met or heard about along the way — but the character thaws into a lived-in and wholly believable depiction of wasted potential. Charlie, the self-described “smartest kid around without a high school diploma“ (as he raps in one of the least painful freestyle scenes in the history of cinema), is a genuinely bright young man with a good heart and wit to burn. And Robinson, as disposable as he was in the dinosaur movie, does a phenomenal job of bringing Charlie to life. Given an actual character to play, the young actor finds something ineffably human to hold on to; no matter how schematic the plot becomes, Robinson never allows the film to stray too far from the truth.
As Charlie begins to blossom, the movie cleverly surrounds him with a gaggle of characters who draw out his different sides. Devon Bostick is strong as a hedonistic buddy who still wants to be there for his friend, and the scenes between he and Robinson are easy and carefree. Morgan Saylor, so excellent in the forthcoming “White Girl,” is perfect as the voracious addict next door who has Charlie’s best interests at heart but struggles to keep her demons to herself. And Common, who’s become one of American cinema’s most unexpectedly welcome screen presences, shines as a counselor who helps Charlie check his privilege.
“Being Charlie” never forgets that its namesake has been given every advantage in the world, and the film feels true in part because it recognizes that recovery might discriminate, but addiction never does. As Nick Reiner knows from experience — and his dad knows from paying for it — rehab is an industry unto itself, and the odds are in Charlie’s favor because he can always afford another stint. While the “rich white kid with a narcissistic father who sees them as a nuisance” trope is dreadfully trite stuff (have we forgotten “Crazy/Beautiful“?), Reiner illustrates how this disease can prey on those who have the means to live above it. In doing so, this story finds a way to explore Charlie’s background without asking us to pity him for his privilege.
The film itself is less successful in triumphing over its laziest clichés, the wind knocked out of its sails every time Reiner cuts back to Elwes trying to wish his son out of existence as he fields a phone call in his limo or flips burgers at a campaign event. There’s an icky sense of convenience to how this storyline develops that’s at odds with the messiness of Charlie’s struggle — addicts can make life difficult for the people who love them, but the painfully obvious way that the film brings this all to a head feels like Reiner slipping back into his worst habits. The darker things get, the more Reiner lightens his touch, and the movie’s third act veers dangerously close to the treacle that its director has been serving up for the last two decades.
Still, both Reiner men evince a palpable understanding of where this journey took them, even if they aren’t entirely capable of depicting the route they took. “Being Charlie” may not be the definitive cinematic portrait of addiction, but it’s the first Rob Reiner movie since “The American President” to palpably convey what it feels like to be anybody.
“Being Charlie” opens in theaters this Friday.