To be completely fair, the opening scenes of The Education of Charlie Banks don't make it seem as though this motion picture has much promise. Everything that happens in these first few minutes leads us to believe that this is gonna be a fairly conventional movie in which a kid lives in fear of his neighborhood bully. Charlie (Jesse Eisenberg) is at a party with his friend Danny (Christopher Marquette), and Danny formally introduces Charlie to Mick (Jason Ritter), even though Charlie has been well aware of who Mick is since the fourth grade; Mick is the kind of guy you don't mess with. Indeed, at the party, Charlie is present when Mick beats up two kids, who nearly die as a result of their injuries. Initially, our title character decides to do the right thing and go to the police to inform them that Mick was the culprit of the attack. However, perhaps out of paranoia, or perhaps out of feeling bad for his friend Danny (who is close to Mick), he goes to the station to retract his statement, and Mick is released. Right here, I began waiting, frustrated, for the movie to unfold exactly as you'd expect after these events: I imagined that Charlie, Danny and Mick would continue as a trio of friends, with Charlie constantly on the edge of being discovered as the one who ratted Mick out, which would lead to all the predictable fights and lame moments of redemption that we've seen a bunch of times in other films.
Surprise of surprises, though, after Charlie retracts his statement and Mick is released by the police, the film takes a drastic turn by moving ahead a few years in time. Charlie and Danny are now college roommates, and it appears that Mick is long out of their lives. The best thing accomplished by The Education of Charlie Banks is that when Mick does re-enter Charlie and Danny's lives, it's not to resurface the issue of him having been arrested and of Charlie's paranoia of being discovered as the rat. Instead, the film chooses to examine how Mick weaves himself into this environment in which you'd expect him to be a fish out of water, as he's surrounded by overly-intellectual people who are also mostly of a higher social echelon. The title character of Charlie serves as our eyes to witness the observations that Mick makes about education and about the social classes. At one point when Charlie says he's about to go get a drink and study later, an outraged Mick asks, "You know how much your parents are paying for you to go here?" and forces Charlie to sit down and study. Later, when Mick dresses similarly to the other guys on campus (in dockers and whatnot), Charlie comments that "no one would ever know..." and then he pauses, with trepidation, and then continues "... that he wasn't some preppy kid from Connecticut." Mick begins sitting in on classes, and begins feeling hope that perhaps this world isn't necessarily out of his reach: "I've been auditing, and it's not like every room is full of geniuses." These are only a few of the insights that we get throughout this film on how overrated both education and financial success are, and how even someone who may seem like a hopeless thug could actually have a shot at improving things for himself.
Unfortunately, as I somewhat expected, the final scenes of The Education of Charlie Banks bring back what we thought was the long-buried subject of Charlie having turned Mick in a few years ago. The good thing is, though, that it all doesn't quite unfold as predictably as you might think: Mick is angry, but he doesn't drastically shift from being Charlie's friend to wanting to kill him, which is exactly what would normally happen in a more conventional film. The film would've failed had it chosen to put aside everything that we felt Mick had learned throughout the film and brought back "evil Mick" from the film's first 20 minutes, but thankfully, it doesn't do that, and so the climax isn't all that bad, as much as I would've appreciated something more subdued.
It's pretty much official that Jesse Eisenberg must have some sort of fondness for playing intellectual kids from the 80's, as he's played that role in The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland and now here (though, to be fair, in The Squid and the Whale he was just pretending to be an intellectual - there's a scene in The Education of Charlie Banks in which he mentions that he's writing a paper on The Great Gatsby, and I appreciated how that was reminiscent of something related to his character in the former film). Eisenberg does very well here, even though he doesn't get as much room to show his range as he did earlier this year in Adventureland, and I do have to complain that in the voiceover we get from him during this film, it's often way too obvious that he's reading, rather than voicing the words as if they were personal memories. Jason Ritter is quite effective; we never lose sight of his insecurities and vulnerability, even in Mick's more over-the-top moments.
The editors who handled the reels of The Education of Charlie Banks make an awkward decision to have several fade-outs throughout the movie. I don't know if this is meant to make the production feel episodic, or to signal some sort of shift in the action, but I didn't find much point to it. Still, this doesn't take away that much from what is a mostly successful coming-of-age drama. While the plotline that is followed during the film's opening scenes and then resurfaces towards the end isn't particularly interesting, what we get in between is well-executed and thought-provoking.