You Can Count On These "Wallflowers"

In the life of a teenager, Graduation is the only day exempt from the otherwise glacial pace of high school. The rest is an unrelenting slog of 6 AM wake-ups, social minefields, and mountains of paperwork. And if high school is the storm, freshman year is the eye of the hurricane. Some people swear that high school is as good as life gets, and to those people I say… no bleeping way. The best of high school is an absence of turmoil. The little victories are the big victories – a day without homework, a cancelled pop quiz, or a smile from an unrequited crush. Every day is felt deeper and more profoundly than most days as a grown-up and every moment feels like the most important of your life. The film adaptation of “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower” gets this absolutely right, illuminating the experience as an entirely unique amalgam of the highest highs and the lowest lows.

In this case, there was no one better to adapt the bestselling book than the author himself. Stephen Chbosky’s screenplay is controlled and often subtle, almost to a fault, but it’s his direction that comes across best. This is his directorial debut, but a multitude of smart decisions – from creative visual cues to letting his actors play to their strengths – suggests that he’s done this many times before. It would be a mistake to assume any bestselling author could make such a painless jump to directing, but Chbosky clearly has the innate ability to tell a story regardless of the medium. I went in expecting something twee, in the vein of “Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” but what I got was an affecting drama that’s darker, more subversive, and less clichéd than its ad campaign suggests.

Logan Lerman stars at the titular wallflower, Charlie, a high school freshman with no friends and briefcases full of guilt – mostly over the death of his Aunt Helen. He’s accepted by friends-of-a-friend Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), both seniors with eclectic tastes in music and a small but fervent circle of friends. Charlie sees hope in his new friends, but can’t help feel anxious about their impending freedom (graduation) and his 1,300 or so remaining days in captivity. Lerman provides an understated charm to the role – often compiled with grief – even though it’s not easy to buy any of the cast as high schoolers. Watson is respectable in her first big post-Potter role, but she struggles mightily with her American accent, especially in the first half of the picture. Miller is the star of the show as a flamboyant troublemaker, and his charisma borders on radiant at times. His showmanship complements Lerman’s aloofness, underscoring their friendship as the backbone of the narrative.

Thematically, the film is about loneliness, anxiety, inclusion, exclusion, abuse, and growing up, and all three of the main characters experience all of the above. The lighter moments are necessary to offset the more upsetting corners of the story, as some of the plot machinations will hit certain viewers pretty hard. The film earned its PG-13 rating on appeal, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with its original R – this is mature stuff, probably best reserved for older high school students. It’s not fluff, it’s not overtly silly, and it’s certainly more meditative than carefree. Its worst moments come at the hands of overwrought catchphrases (like the well-known “We are infinite”), which float away as nothing more than taglines for lesser pieces of work. Luckily, Chbosky mostly avoids this kind of banality thanks to the strength of his characters, a cast of which also includes nice supporting performances by Mae Whitman and Paul Rudd.

It’s not easy to shoehorn popular songs into a screenplay, especially a story grounded in a vague 90s tapestry, but “Perks” has a soundtrack with a life of its own. It’s hard to believe a group of teens having trouble identifying David Bowie’s “Heroes,” but then you remember you’ve been transported to a pre-iTunes, pre-Shazam, and pre-Google age – and all is forgiven, much like the rest of the picture’s shortcomings. What it gets right is so right that the occasional clunky piece of dialogue or the slip of an accent isn’t enough to derail a lovely piece of cinema. “Perks Of A Wallflower” is a byproduct of the hyper spasticity of MTV’s version of the 90s (the book was published by MTV), but you wouldn’t know it by its soft approach and mature handling of difficult issues.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: September 21, 2012 (Limited)
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Screenwriter: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Emma Watson, Logan Ler­man, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Nina Dobrev, Johnny Simmons, Dylan McDermott
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight – all involving teens)