The only preconceptions I had about Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower — apart from the natural and not unreasonable resentment over being at a theater at 9 a.m. for a press screening — were grounded in some clips I encountered on a talk show. The clips — by their lighting and physical appearance, not content — had reminded me of nothing so much as a soap opera. To say that those clips did the film no favors is an undestatement of a sizable nature, because the film itself didn’t give me that “daytime drama” feeling at all. Indeed, The Perks of Being a Wallflower turned out to be an utterly professional-looking theatrical film — and, as it turns out, one of the year’s most agreeable surprises on every level.
I can’t address how the film reflects Chbosky’s source novel, since I’ve never read it. (One assumes that it at least represents the book as nearly as he wanted it to — though what Chbosky wanted now may well differ a bit from the source book that came out in 1999.) However, it clearly adheres to the basics — the story of an introverted, troubled high school freshman, Charlie (Logan Lerman), who becomes involved with a pair of seniors — step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) — who end up helping to usher him into the world. That sounds a lot more simplistic and trite on paper than it is in action. The story is difficult to synopsize in a way that conveys the sense of the movie — and even more difficult to do without giving away things the film clearly intends the viewer to come to in the course of the story.
What matters about the film — what makes it very much worth your while — lies in the characterizations and the manner in which the movie manages to capture a moment in time that resonates beyond the film’s particulars. The story is set in the early 1990s — about 20 years after I was the age of the characters and 20 years away from where we are now. Yet it feels authentic to all those eras. Certain things clearly date it — the music (though most of it is earlier than the action) and the mixtapes stand out — but the feelings it generates are universal. For example, people may not make mixtapes (or even mix CDs) anymore, but they still look to music to find connections to things they’re feeling, and they still use music to try to connect with other people — and there’s still hope that that music will convey things they can’t say for themselves. More than this, though, the film plugs into that moment in time when we find ourselves feeling as if we are part of a like-minded group of people. But it also touches on the painful truth that the moment is finite and to some degree even illusory.
Don’t misunderstand, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is by no means a gloomy affair. Much of it is quite funny and all of it is life-affirming (in the best sense of that term), but it isn’t without its bittersweet side. This isn’t some silly teen movie, but a film of some depth that just happens to have its fair share of humor. The cast — especially the three leads — is particularly good and certainly better than you might expect. If all you know Logan Lerman from is Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010), he will undoubtedly come as a surprise here. Similarly, Emma Watson proves there’s more to her than the Harry Potter films suggested. The real revelation, though, is Ezra Miller. His one-note performance in the grotesquely overrated We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) did nothing to indicate the brave and nuanced performance he gives here. I know we’re at the time of year when a higher level of films is starting to fill theater screens, but don’t let this little gem get lost in the shuffle. Make time for it. Rated PG-13 on appeal for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight — all involving teens.
Starts Friday at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14