The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky (Based on His Own Novel)
Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, Emma Watson, Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Johnny Simmons, Nina Dobrev, Mae Whitman, Joan Cusack
PG-13 on appeal for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight – all involving teens
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High School in the late 1980’s and 1990’s bore little resemblance to the hyper-stylized version portrayed by John Hughes in films like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. Some students attempted to emulate that style, but most of us fit into a behavioral model that is better represented in Stephen Chbosky’s stellar debut The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower began as a bestselling novel written by Chbosky about a teen plagued by memories of his aunt’s death, believing the accident to be his fault. The film hints that its protagonist Charlie (Logan Lerman) has recently completed an intense therapy session and has been prescribed drugs to suppress his depression. On his first day at a new High School, the young student of literature makes his first friend: a teacher (Paul Rudd) who recognizes a gifted student and guides him on a road of learning.
Charlie later befriends openly gay Patrick (Ezra Miller) who introduces him to the beautiful outsiders that make up his group of friends. Each have their quirks and foibles, but it’s the young woman who happens to be Patrick’s best friend who ends up piquing Charlie’s interests. Sam (Emma Watson) is smart, beautiful and accepting of everyone around her as long as they are respectful to others who are different. The three of them and their cadre of friends move through the tangled web of tedium that is High School and form a friendship that seems as natural and organic as one would expect (and hope) to find in those formative years.
I went to High School in the early 1990’s, a period not far enough removed from the ’80’s that its influences weren’t still everywhere. I never identified with the protagonists in the Brat Pack films Hughes made popular in the 1980’s, largely because they were overly-stylized teen stereotypes that were being used to stamp out other teenage stereotypes. The result was a hodge podge of asymmetrical reality that may have given a boost to those who felt like they weren’t popular enough, but ultimately proved no more useful to a teenager coping with his peers than a parent lecturing them on how they should handle situations they never directly experienced.
It’s true that parents have a difficult time relating to what their kids are going through, especially in the potentially tumultuous teenage years; and while Hughes lightly touched on this dichotomy in films like The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink with mostly absent parents, the relationships that were formed in Hughes’ films still seemed somewhat inorganic. In Chbosky’s film, the friendships that develop seem natural and instantly relatable. This is thanks to the tremendous acting talents of its twenty-something cast.
Lerman has been in the industry for several years, but I first became aware of the young man at the head of the cast of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, an adaptation of a popular teen novel that was far better than I had expected. Lerman capably handled the responsibilities of leading the cast, but there was no indication that he’d be more than your standard, attractive, semi-awkward teenager. In Perks, his performance is crafted with an impressive naturalistic style. His charming demeanor and evident talent draw you into his struggles with little effort.
Helping him along is We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s break-out star Ezra Miller whose showy, exotic confidant is a stark contrast to his quiet, menacing killer in Kevin. Although there are elements of his earlier performance in this film, he does a fantastic job with a character that needs both exuberance and vulnerability. Likewise complimentary is Emma Watson. While she may seem too pretty and semi-ethereal for this part, she works that out by endearing her subdued performance to the audience.
Some have said this is a sanitized version of what High School life is really like; however, I identified a great deal with the characters and events in this film. We may not have looked precisely like these somewhat idealized versions of ourselves, but I can pull out bits and pieces of each character that matched my friends perfectly. And if you cannot relate to the ideas and experiences in this film, you might be quick to dismiss this as another John Hughes clone, but where Perks succeeds is in crafting a story that might actually exist in the world, not one that idealistically did.
Chbosky’s debut as a filmmaker shows a great deal of promise. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a sweet, endearing film that may not have the soaring and oblique camera angles of a traditional indie film and might not burst out of the screen with style, but it’s a simple, involving narrative that will only get better with age and reflection.
February 7, 2013