Stories of loners searching for their place in the world are hardly new, and there are certainly more polished films which tackle the subject, but for its flaws The Perks of Being a Wallflower gets the emotion more right than most.
Taking on teenage suicide, closeted homosexual relationships, drug use, teenage sex, unrequited love, the complex psychological problems of an anxiety-riddled teen, and one or two other major themes I won’t give away here, the movie certainly doesn’t shy away from tackling hard issues and forcing its characters to deal honestly with both their choices and consequences.
Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, who adapted his own novel of the same name for the film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower centers around Charlie (Logan Lerman), an awkward, introverted high school freshman who has seen too much pain in his young life. The brainy introvert starts high school all too aware old friends have moved into new cliques without him and is ill-equipped to make new ones.
Still reeling from the suicide of his best friend only months before, Charlie struggles to fit in until he is befriended by a pair of seniors, step-siblings Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller). The pair quickly adopt Charlie into their circle of friends which includes a stoner (Adam Hagenbuch), a kleptomaniac (Erin Wilhelmi), and a Buddhist punk chick (Mae Whitman). For the first time in his life Charlie feels like he actually belongs, but that doesn’t mean his troubles fade away.
We learn early on that his friend’s recent death isn’t the only thing troubling Charlie, but the full weight of the tragedy involving his favorite aunt (Melanie Lynskey) isn’t completely revealed until the film’s final act. Although Charlie’s new friendships help him keep his demons at bay, it’s obvious there’s far more going on under the surface of the likable young man than just a case of shyness.
The novel presents Charlie’s story through a series of letters he writes to an imaginary friend (a construct the film keeps). You can certainly tell the story came from a young adult novel as the script struggles with awkward transitions and pacing at times. In the hands of a more seasoned director (this is Chbosky’s second time behind the camera, and his first since 1995) the structure and the look of the film would almost certainly be more polished. However, what the writer/director may lack in experience he makes up for in his understanding and love of the source material.
If some of the supporting characters feel a little too pat or one-note you can forgive the film because of the strong performances across the board, especially by our leading man. There’s an awful lot asked of Lerman in this role but he proves more than up to the task and shows his ability to carry films featuring far more complex character than we’ve seen him before in the likes of The Three Musketeers and Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Rounding out the supporting cast are Nina Dobrev as Charlie’s sister, Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh as his parents, and Paul Rudd as Charlie’s favorite teacher.
Chbosky is responsible for adapting one of favorite films of 2005 for the screen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower may not be as good, but, like RENT, it does manage to find a good balance between the pain and unexpected humor surrounding the lives of troubled characters. It’s easy to see why Charlie would fall for Sam (what 14 year-old boy wouldn’t fall for Emma Watson?) and her friends, but, equally important, Lerman gives Charlie an earnestness and likability that, despite his shyness and the troubles of his past, makes it just as easy to see why the group would open their arms to the freshman.
The film is an eclectic mix of literature (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Walden), pop culture (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and music references (The Smiths, Nick Drake, The Beatles, David Bowie). All of these may not work as well as I’d like, The Rocky Horror Picture Show reenactments especially feel clumsy (though certainly in character), you certainly can’t fault the movie for having good taste. The Perks of Being a Wallflower may never become the great film it aspires to be, but Chbosky’s emotionally-raw storytelling can’t be easily dismissed.