The Perks Of Being A Wallflower: This High School Drama Easily Earns an A+
Usually when a film about quirky angsty teenagers begins, I think, “Haven’t I seen this film before?” By the time The Perks Of Being A Wallflower ended, I realized I was wrong– there was at least one exceptional coming-of-age story left. The true surprise is, despite its familiarity, it executes its story points with such clarity and precision that I can’t imagine a single person sitting through this film not recognizing a single onscreen feeling from their high school days. It doesn’t simply rest on the laurels of nostalgia– as this film captures, high school can be scary, awkward, full of intense highs and lows. Instead, it creates several full-blooded characters to watch grow, and the illusion of simplicity in its execution is utterly spellbinding. Nearly all films in this genre rely on stereotype, sassy irony, and cliche. This film, smartly written and beautifully acted, is the warmest and most heartfelt film I’ve seen all year.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) had it tough in middle school. He’d been away for psychiatric treatment, and his only friend committed suicide shortly before high school began. So to say he stepped into the first day of ninth grade with extreme hesitance is putting it mildly. He eventually ends up finding himself drawn towards two seniors: Patrick (Ezra Miller), a cut-up extrovert misfit in his shop class, and his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson), who herself didn’t belong after bouts of extreme alcohol abuse and promiscuity early in her high school career. Upon befriending these two– and inevitably taking a shining to Sam’s warmth– he begins to go to parties, meet others, and find that, among a certain sect of the high school population, he fits in. While drama inevitably rises up– especially when he begins dating fellow misfit Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman)– and his past continues to haunt him, Charlie chronicles his day-to-day struggles through a diary formatted as a series of letters.
That last sentence likely made some of you groan. Perhaps much of the description did. Yet Stephen Chbosky, who adapted his own book for the screen and directed it, gives each character the heart and dimension they require to make the film transcend the usual tropes of the coming-of-age teen angstfests. He delicately takes his time before giving Charlie any friends at all. His early interaction with his English teacher, afraid to raise his hand after being called a gay slur, is dead-on accurate. Same for the stomach-tightening dread that comes with looking around the cafeteria for familiar faces. The phrasing, the shot selection, the execution– it’s all there. Examine the scene in which Charlie first approaches Patrick. Patrick has been given a mean nickname in a class he shares with Charlie. At a football game, Charlie sits alone but sees Patrick cheering. He subtly walks up the bleachers, but sits across from him, putting the initiative into Patrick’s hands. When Patrick calls him over, Charlie calls him Patrick– the first time he’s been called something other than the nickname all day. The spark of interest Patrick takes in Charlie is believable, and Charlie’s discovery of a friend still doesn’t automatically cure his crippling social fears due to the nature of its set-up. It’s a lovely scene, one of a countless number throughout.
Nothing in Logan Lerman’s career to date can possibly have prepared you for how good he is in this film. The term “revelation” comes to mind– this isn’t just a leading man, this is a damn good actor who will last in the business long after other “hot” young faces have disappeared from the grid. Emma Watson also solidifies her post-Harry Potter career. This isn’t just your usual hollow indie magical pixie love interest. She carries her past on her sleeve, the way truly damaged people do. I’ve known women like Sam in my life: there’s a vulnerability in body language and an openness in gaze that Watson absolutely nails. Finally, there’s Ezra Miller, who has now starred in two of the best films of the past two years. In We Need To Talk About Kevin, he comes off a bit one-note at first and slowly reveals his layers and his insecurities. Similarly here, watching individual clips might lead to you believe Patrick is your typical sassy gay friend. The build over the course of the film reveals Patrick’s deep-rooted hurt, and it’s devastating. His romance with a closeted fellow student is vital and contemporary, sure to touch all in the audience– even those who aren’t gay. Watch his eyes in a late scene with Charlie in which he proclaims how the world is his, only to follow it immediately by his most vulnerable moment. It’s a tricky scene to pull off, perfectly encapsulating the bravado masking a teenager’s fears, and Miller is heart-breaking in it.
I’ve mentioned a few times how personal the film feels. It’s strange– the more specific a film feels, the more universal it becomes, and the more a film desperately tries to reach out to the broadest possible audience (next weekend’s Pitch Perfect, par exemple), the more it whiffs and fails to connect. This is a film to which everyone, even the most popular kid in high school, can relate. It’s about the human spirit’s desire to “save” those who are suffering, and how those who suffer sometimes need only to know others care to emerge from their personal brand of darkness. I’ve absolutely fallen head over heels for girls who I saw dating guys who treated them poorly and longed to show them something different. I’ve absolutely been involved with girls who were good people but I didn’t particularly have feelings for… yet you can’t just dump a good person as easily as you’d think. I’ve absolutely had people cry onto my shoulders, and I’ve cried onto the shoulders of friends in my time of need. This is a film about connection, about confronting the fear of being alone only to discover that immortal two-way street of friendship. Charlie says, driving through a tunnel, “I feel infinite.” He’s not just babbling stoned expressions… the feeling of having the capacity to belong is something that empowers all of us. The Perks of Being a Wallflower shares that theme through Chbosky’s all-too-certainly autobiographical tale, with warmth, intelligence, and sure-handedness. This is storytelling at its finest, the type of film all teenagers– forget that, all ages– should see.