Director Jon Poll discusses 'Bartlett,' laments R rating

In some circles, "Charlie Bartlett" is being touted as the quirky male counterpart to the now-ubiquitous indie crowd-pleaser "Juno."

It's a fitting comparison, actually, and not just because "Bartlett" is another low-budget comedy with shades of social satire, populated by ultra-witty adolescents and oddball adults. Or because it addresses the topic of teen mental health and psychiatry with the same sort of enigmatic non-stance that has pro-lifers and pro-choicers both claiming "Juno" as their own with equal fervor.

It's also appropriate because the Diablo Cody-penned script for that young-and-preggers megahit was one of the last to land on director Jon Poll's desk before he decided to make "Bartlett." Had fate's pendulum swung a different way, Poll already would be reaping the rewards of helming that high-grossing, critically acclaimed comedy, instead of anxiously awaiting word on the one that opens today.

Better known in the industry as a reliable editor, a guy who's manned the cutting room on high-profile hits like "Meet the Parents" and "Scary Movie 3," "Bartlett" marks Poll's first time in the director's chair.

But it was a long time in the making.

"I read about 100 scripts - over 100 - trying to find a movie I wanted to direct," Poll said during a recent interview at the InterContinental Buckhead Hotel in Atlanta.

Finally, the aspiring auteur unearthed one called "Youth in Revolt," penned by an inexperienced young screenwriter named Gustin Nash.

Poll called up his friend and mentor, Jay Roach (director of broad-comedy blockbusters like the "Austin Powers" trilogy and the aforementioned "Parents"), for advice. Roach responded by turning him on to another Nash script, this one about a crafty, charismatic rich kid who becomes a rebellious public school hero, dabbling in amateur psychiatry (via bathroom stall consults with his peers-turned-patients) in a bid to win over the hearts and minds of his classmates.

"I really responded to it more," Poll said of the "Bartlett" script. "I loved how it had humor, heart and a lot on its mind. It was an edgy comedy that also had a lot of insight."

The veteran Roach did his newbie pal a solid and put in a good word with the project's producers, who had actually approached Roach to direct. After a little persuasion, they agreed to sit down with Poll, albeit under a slight air of doubt.

"I think they were humoring (Jay) more than anything," he said with a laugh.

And so, a naive, hyperanimated Poll delivered his first-ever directorial pitch - a breathless, two-hour barrage of ideas that had the suits checking their watches. When they could finally get a word in, they said: "You know, most people do this in about 20 minutes."

"I had seven pages of single-spaced notes," Poll said. A rookie mistake.

Despite his longwinded lead-in, the producers were impressed with Poll's zeal, and he eventually got the job. But with a novice director working from a first-timer's script, the phrase "hard sell" was something of an understatement. Add to that a talented-but-relatively-unknown lead in Anton Yelchin (whom Poll championed for the titular role), and subject matter that was controversial, to say the least.

"No studio in town wanted to touch it," Poll said, "because it was an R-rated film where kids give other kids drugs."

So even though he sought to craft a comedy that was actually "quite commercial," Poll had to go the art-house route and release "Bartlett" through a boutique production outfit called Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, a decision that lends the project plenty of indie cred, but has made it tough to market.

Also not helping: The R rating, which can be a kiss of death for teen films.

"Every audience we've shown the movie to, 90 percent thought it was PG-13, and should be," Poll said of early reactions along the festival circuit. "People have been utterly shocked (at the R rating)."

Though the director said he respects the MPAA's decision, he does find it a little ironic that truly honest films about the high school experience are often deemed inappropriate for the very audience they depict.

"I do find that sad," Poll said. "It's a really tricky thing. 'Juno' was PG-13, and I think that's great. That helped them."

Poll said he would've gladly trimmed language and sexual content to get a lower rating, but couldn't bring himself to compromise the one plot thread that's essential to the film's premise - Bartlett's stint as a well-intentioned dealer of prescription drugs.

"We just couldn't take out the drug element," Poll said. "It was too integral to the whole movie, and (without it) I don't think we would've had a movie that anyone would have liked. What I hope is that enough people talk about it, and it gets to the place where parents will, considerately and thoughtfully, bring their kids to the movie and let them see it."