John Hughes, for all the love people heap on his ’80s teen movies, was far too easy on high school. Maybe your high school experience was different than mine — and, if so, congrats. For many of us, however, those years were a marathon of self-pity, heartache, passion and anything else you’d find on an album by The Smiths.
That’s what makes The Perks of Being a Wallflower so impressive. It understands the excess of feeling that characterizes being a teenager, and it doesn’t prettify or minimize the trials faced by the shy and socially awkward kid sitting alone in the school cafeteria.
Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, who has done an admirable job adapting his heralded young-adult novel of the same name, the film follows Charlie (Logan Lerman, The Three Musketeers), a quiet and withdrawn boy starting his freshman year. He is smart and compassionate, but bears the psychological scars left from a best friend who committed suicide and a beloved aunt (Melanie Lynskey, Win Win) who died in a car crash.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that Charlie has difficulty making friends, although he finds some inspiration courtesy a nurturing English teacher (Paul Rudd, Wanderlust). Things brighten when Charlie meets Patrick (Ezra Miller, We Need to Talk About Kevin) and Sam (Emma Watson of the Harry Potter movies), a pair of stepsiblings at peace with not being part of the in crowd.
They are kind and open to Charlie, and soon welcome him into a circle of friends — stoners, punks, assorted outcasts — whom Sam describes as “the land of misfit toys.” Charlie is introduced to drugs, good music and the thrills of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And he falls for the easy-to-fall-for Sam.
While Charlie’s new friends ease his loneliness, they have their own pain. Patrick, who is gay, dates a closeted football player mired in guilt. Sam’s low self-esteem guides her into relationships with crummy guys. Like Charlie, they are searching for love and acceptance, a journey that doesn’t take a straight line.
Drenched in romanticism, The Perks of Being a Wallflower deftly captures the operatic mood swings of youth, a time when the perfect song playing over the car radio can seem to ignite infinite possibilities. Chbosky matches that with a soundtrack that collects some intoxicating alt-rock from the ’80s and ’90s.
More important is the film’s impeccable casting. Lerman is affecting, and Watson proves she’ll be just fine in a post-Hermione career. Miller, however, is superb. After a hair-raisingly psychotic turn in 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, he is amazingly effective illustrating the complexities behind Patrick.Perhaps fitting for a movie that smells like teen spirit, Chbosky is a bit more successful eliciting emotion than he is with plot. Charlie’s friend who killed himself is briefly mentioned and, curiously, never revisited. It is among a handful of contrivances that can be forgiven in light of the movie’s sincerity.
After all, nothing says high school like messiness and imperfection.