A film review by Craig J. Koban October31, 2012

RANK:  #14

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER

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2012, PG-13, 103 mins.

 

Charlie: Logan Lerman / Sam: Emma Watson / Patrick: Ezra Miller / Mom: Kate Walsh / Dad: Dylan McDermott / Aunt Helen: Melanie Lynskey / Mr. Anderson: Paul Rudd / Mary Elizabeth: Mae Whitman

Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, based on his novel.

I have seen countless teen-centric high school dramedies over the years, but THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER spoke to me in ways that many others have not.  

The film is set in the early 1990's and as a Gen-Xer that went to high school during the same period, I was taken in with the its sensitive, but tough-minded and unsentimental focus on the comings and goings of three teenage friends and their warts and all existence in school.  There is an overarching sweep of genuineness and emotional honesty to the material in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER that I’ve rarely experienced before in these types of genre efforts; it also pitch perfectly captures one undeniable fact of not only adolescent life, but of life in general: we accept the love we think we deserve. 

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is based on the 1999 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Stephen Chbosky, and in a highly rare move he was given the opportunity to not only adapt his own literary work into a screenplay, but also has taken the reigns as director for the film adaptation.  This alone is kind of a refreshing move on the studio’s part, seeing as so many viewers over the years think that modern screenwriters are sometimes out of touch with what made the novels they are appropriating for the big screen tick.  Chbosky’s novel explored the unwavering anxiety and depression that befalls teens when trying to fit in.  It also evoked how people on the outside of popular cliques often manage – through no effort of their own – to discover friendship in unlikely places.  Beyond that, it also tackled notions of sexual identity repression and mental illness.  This seems like a tall order for a high school dramedy, but Chbosky has pulled it off rather flawlessly in his translation. 

But of course, much of the obligatory content of other high school films are here – finding friendship, first crushes and first kisses, kind and empathetic teachers, alcohol and drug-infused partying, painful misunderstandings between friends that create emotional gulfs, etc. – but it’s the manner that Chbosky delivers all the material that makes it feel fresh and invigorating.  In a suburb of Pittsburgh in the early 90’s resides Charlie *(Logan Lerman), a high school freshman and the “wallflower” of the film’s title.  He is about to make the scary transition from middle school to high school, made all the more terrifying because he is regressively shy and meek mannered.  And he’s unpopular…something that he constantly reminds himself of in the film’s voiceover narration.  

 

 

Charlie may have reasons for feeling downtrodden and anti-social: We learn (rather quickly) that he once had a friend that took his own life a year earlier and he has constant nightmarish flashbacks to his aunt, whom also was taken from him on one particularly important day in his life.  When things go socially sour for Charlie, he mentally collapses into flights of paranoia and unease, which consequently makes finding new friends difficult.  His first days at school are almost traumatizing, that is until he is kindly befriended by two step-siblings – Patrick (Erza Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) – who seem to be fully liberated spirits that take great solace in not conforming to anything.  Slowly and surely, Charlie gains acceptance in their tight-knit circle of eccentric friends, discovering the pleasures of David Bowie music and attending midnight screenings of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.  Charlie, though, can’t seem to let his dark past go, which always seems to threaten his newfound happiness. 

Much like the criminally underrated ADVENTURELAND, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is a period-centric coming-of-age story that deserves props for not succumbing to the usual genre conventions.  Chbosky lends a sensitive and observant eye when focusing on the crushing awkwardness of Charlie trying to win over new friends, but he also dives headfirst into more thorny and complicated thematic material that would normally be excised from other films altogether.  There is a harsh and sometimes unsettling subplot involving Patrick dating a closeted football star, which is kept in secret in fear of dire repercussions from school peers and parental figures.  Then there’s the way Charlie’s mental illness is honed in on with both understanding and keen observation, but the film never completely paints Charlie as a black and white good/misunderstood kid.  He commits acts of cruelty towards his friends that are unsavory and has so much self-pity at times that you want to slap him.  

The trio of young performers here are absolutely stellar.  Lerman is an actor that I’ve never considered to be one of range (films like PERCY JACKSON AND THE LIGHTNING THIEF and THE THREE MUSKETEERS have not help his cause), but I was amazed at his career-defining performance here as Charlie.  Lerman has absconded away from his camera-mugging cockiness that typified his past performances by capturing Charlie’s insecurities, his disheartening past traumas, his mild mannered timidity, and his own ungainly and introverted affability.  Some have complained that Lerman is perhaps to low key in the film to make an impression, which misses the point: Charlie is a wallflower, hopeless outsider, and is deeply unsure of himself.  Subtlety is the key here. 

Watson and Miller are standouts as well, especially Miller, who chilled us all to the bone with his unnerving work as a troubled and disturbed teen in last year’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN and now plays a completely different type of young man in Patrick, a person that seems limitlessly confident and out-going while, at the same time, hinting at his own deeply entrenched fears.  Watson, best know for her role in the HARRY POTTER films, may have the trickiest assignment to tackle in Sam.  On paper, the role seems one-note and preordained (the flirtatious, pretty, poised, but ultimately unconfident object of Charlie’s desires) but she brings a sincerity and honesty to her part that allows Sam to feel more fully formed.  Her tumultuous relationship with Charlie –bouncing around from friendship to possible romantic intimacy – will make just about anyone in the audience remember their first loves.  Both of them learn, though, that friendship is often more important that looking for someone to date. 

Oh…and a little bit of Paul Rudd goes an awfully long way too.  He plays an English teacher and caring mentor figure to Charlie that inspires him to read classics and find his own literary voice (how nice is it to see high school teachers shown as good, nurturing, and compassionate figures in films like these?).  I guess I found THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER so atypically refreshing in most regards; it’s not dime-a-dozen teen angst drivel, nor is it a squeaky clean portrayal of adolescent mental illness or emotional restlessness.  Chbosky shows a remarkably assured hand at balancing all of the film’s themes of social introversion, identity crisis, and coming to grips with a damning past that always seems to hurt one in the present.  This is a sad film too (many were balling in the audience), but not manipulative so.  It’s also a film of joyous young passions for all things in life and, ultimately, optimism for the future.  In the end, I was surprised by how much THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER moved me and the perks of seeing it are many.

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