The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a unique and bold take on the traditional coming-of-age storyline. Yes, a high school freshman has trouble fitting in. Yes, there are members of cliques clustered together in the cafeteria. And yes, there is an “untouchable” girl the protagonist pines for. But this film rips deeper than many in its genre by taking a long, focused look at uncomfortable topics like death in the family, suicide, LSD, depression, homophobia, and physical and mental abuse. And oh yeah, there’s also enough comedy to make you laugh till your jaw is sore.
The film revolves around Charlie (Logan Lerman), a fifteen-year-old who has just broken through the barbed wire barrier that separates middle school and high school. Breaking through that barrier can be painful, Charlie knows. He’s an immediate loner. It doesn’t help that he once suffered severely from a mental illness and now takes pills to keep the “bad times” at bay.
Charlie’s only friend at lunch is the paperback clutched tightly in his hands. His English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), gives Charlie extra books to read outside of class. This additional homework isn’t a form of punishment but an olive branch of friendship extended from Mr. Anderson to his quiet pupil. It’s the only good thing that happens to Charlie in his first introductory weeks of high school, where everybody in the hallway seems to share the common goal of staring at him like he’s a three-legged dog or practicing the timeless ritual of knocking his books out of his hands (seriously bullies: get some new material).
Charlie finds that not everything about high school is hell, however, when he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) at a football game. Patrick and Sam are seniors and half-siblings. Bro and sis get along well, hanging out at the Big Boy (a local diner) and at parties with the same group of friends that Sam dubs the “Island of Misfit Toys.” Another chance encounter with the duo (this time at the homecoming dance as Patrick and Sam groove madly to the Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen”) leads Charlie to becoming an official friend of the group of misfits. For the first time in a long time, Charlie has friends. He attends parties, gets high, kisses girls, and goes on late-night drives with the radio cranked up to a deafening level. But as Charlie becomes more sociable he learns that making friends also means you can lose them by doing the wrong things. Charlie’s illness also makes a comeback, further compromising Charlie’s grip on happiness.
Stephen Chbosky did triple duty on this one. He wrote the novel of the same name the film is based on, he wrote the screenplay, and he directed. That’s one way to ensure full control of the creative process when your book is adapted to film. Being a reader of the cult-hit book, I can say with conviction that Chbosky has made a faithful adaptation that’s just as enjoyable as the source material. As is the case with any book to movie transition, many details and characters and scenes were cut in order to fit the limitations of having a runtime. Sometimes when that much material from the book isn’t shown on the silver screen, fans of the book get angry enough to throw their Diet Cokes at the projector. Not the case here. Chbosky condenses the novel’s plot satisfyingly by including only the most intriguing characters and situations in the movie. The end result is a sturdy story that can stand on its own two legs and say, “Look at me, I’m great!” This is also good news for those who haven’t read the book and still want to see a good stand-alone movie.
Even though it only debuted at number ten in the box office its opening weekend, The Perks of Being a Wallflower will be remembered and discussed fondly for decades to come. Yes, it’s that good. It leaves an indelible impression on you, courtesy in large part to powerful acting. Logan Lerman as Charlie flawlessly carries the weight of being the lead. He’s likable and empathetic as the lone introvert; playing the type of person we can all remember seeing wandering the halls alone in high school. When Charlie gets friends and starts to take pleasure in new experiences, we unabashedly root for him and savor his little victories as if they are our own. And when Charlie’s mental state spirals downward, we feel his loss of things gained like a gut-punch.
There are many people who undoubtedly bought a ticket for The Perks of Being a Wallflower for the sole reason of seeing Emma Watson in her first big role since her ten-year stint as Hermione ended. Like these people, I was curious if Watson could be spellbinding outside the stone walls of Hogwarts. Turns out she can. Watson gives a memorable effort as Sam: a somewhat restless high-school senior who’s eager to get her post-grad life into gear but is also reluctant to let go of old friends and treasured traditions. Sam is for the most part a playful, go-with-the-flow girl, but she can switch to stern reasoning pretty darn quick. Watson depicts these attitude shifts with expert ease.
The actor with the most impressionable performance is Ezra Miller as Patrick. Miller chilled audiences with his turn as the teenaged Kevin in 2011’s psychological thriller We Need to Talk About Kevin. Patrick is his first role since Kevin, and it’s another memorable one to tack onto his IMDb page. Patrick is gay and very comfortable with his sexuality, despite living amongst many in the sprawling suburban communities of 1991 who don’t tolerate homosexuals. Miller instills Patrick with a zestful personality and a lovable smugness that enables him to shrug off insults from his classmates. Patrick can’t shrug off every negative thing that comes his way, though, and when he crashes down into depressive depths that Charlie’s familiar with, he crashes hard. Miller makes Patrick instantly likeable, making the later scenes when he’s hurt—in both a physical and mental sense—grim, visceral experiences.
In his latest effort, Chobsky is in total command of the material. He knows how to write believable high-school dialogue, he knows how to sporadically incorporate flashback sequences without making them distracting, and he knows how to wring luscious emotions out of his actors. The Perks of Being a Wallflower manages to be poignant, heartbreaking, and hopeful without ever feeling cluttered. Make room in your schedule to see it.
5 stars out of 5 (A+)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is rated PG-13, has a runtime of 1 hour and 43 minutes, and was given a wide United States release on October 12, 2012.