The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Dir. Stephen Chbosky
4 out of 5
Even some of the best high school movies have a tendency to blow the problems of their teenage protagonists – getting beer, getting out of town, getting laid – out of proportion. It’s too easy for this approach to become vaguely insulting, as if the movie is assuming a certain vapidity on the part of its audience, or seeking to trivialize their experience. The film adaptation of Stephen Chbosky’s young adult novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower – written and directed by Chbosky himself in a rare arrangement – avoids these pitfalls with an appealing honesty in portraying how kids actually grow up. Instead of featuring teens desperately trying to inch themselves over the cusp of adulthood, Perks shows the adult world intruding on the twilight of childhood in a plethora of funny, fulfilling, and tragic ways.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) is an intelligent, sensitive freshman nervously navigating his first weeks of high school, persisting in a stubborn but fruitless quest to make friends. (It takes serious guts – or naiveté – to keep showing up to extracurricular functions like football games and school dances all by your lonesome.) Luckily, he has two excellent prospects in two seniors, the clownish Patrick (Ezra Miller, playing the foil to his sullen teen in We Need to Talk About Kevin), a flamboyant nonconformist who performs Rocky Horror on the weekends, and Sam (Emma Watson), Patrick’s ultra-cool, confident stepsister and the type of woman destined to encourage the affections of college men – in fact, she’s already dating one. Still, they can’t help but notice the dark cloud that hovers over Charlie. In a bout of cannabis-inspired frankness, he reveals to Sam that his best friend committed suicide a few months before the start of school. She immediately realizes that Charlie’s emotional intensity presents risks of its own and persuades her clique of oddballs and rebels to make room for him on “the Island of Misfit Toys.”
That’s when Perks really takes off, driven by the epochal events that mark the passage of time in high school and the camaraderie of its young, talented cast, including Johnny Simmons as Patrick’s closeted football-star boyfriend and Mae Whitman as a punky Mae Whitman-type ballbuster. Paul Rudd pops up as an occasional mentor – a saintly English teacher who introduces Charlie to the ancient wisdom of Penguin Classics – but Chbosky doesn’t waste his time on classroom instruction. He pushes most of the right buttons in introducing the film’s various after-school special issues, gradually revealing them alongside the torch-passing rituals that comprise Charlie’s social education. The excellent chemistry between Watson, Miller, and Lerman also helps stabilize the action when it starts to drift toward the inevitable genre clichés. But these melodramatic elements are necessary to make Perks the commendable achievement that it is, an inviting and emotionally complex teen movie that’s much like the characters it portrays: smart, passionate, and generous.