There’s a reason “Wallflower” has developed such a cult following over the past decade. Chbosky has an innate ability to write about adolescence experiences in a way that makes them feel fresh and deeply personal at the same time. Hence my unease when I heard it was being made into a movie.
In the wrong hands, the story could’ve been yet another clichéd high school flick (and the lackluster trailers certainly make it seem like one). Fortunately, the studio made the best decision possible. They realized if they were going to hire someone to tackle such a beloved and delicate text, it might as well be the guy who created it.
Chbosky serves as screenwriter and director for the cinematic version of his own novel and he totally nails it. In fact, this is one of the exceedingly rare cases in which the movie is better than the book because of the understated narrative choices and flat-out perfect casting. Logan Lerman and Emma Watson are fantastic, while the absolutely remarkable Ezra Miller deserves to be a part of this year’s Best Supporting Actor conversation.
It’s 1991 and the socially awkward Charlie (Lerman) has just started high school. Determined to make it a less hellish experience than middle school, he strives to be invisible and counts down the days until graduation. He’s beginning to think that Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), his English teacher, will be his only friend until he catches the attention of two charismatic seniors.
Sam (Watson) and her stepbrother, Patrick (Miller), hit it off with Charlie at a football game and quickly induct him into their circle of associates (including Mae Whitman, Erin Wilhelmi and Johnny Simmons). The constant stream of parties, late-night diner visits and repeat screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is exactly what Charlie needs.
His parents (Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh) are just thrilled that he has finally found some diversions to take his mind off the recent suicide of his best friend and the long-term trauma caused by the death of his favorite aunt (Melanie Lynskey). However, as the school year flies by and his new friends get ready to leave for college, Charlie starts to revert back to his old behavior as a coping mechanism.
Because this material has lived in Chbosky’s head for so long, it seems like every choice he makes is a smart one. He alludes to the story’s more disturbing and controversial elements rather than rubbing viewers’ noses in it for shock value. He stages the scenes with Charlie, Sam and Patrick as natural teenage conversations, with all the sappy talk about life, growing up and getting out of town that might imply. (I know I sure wouldn’t want to see a video of 18-year-old me having a late night chat with friends.) They speak like real teens, not what a 40-year-old screenwriter thinks teens sound like.
Most importantly, Lerman, Watson and Miller breathe life into their fully-realized roles, making them characters you invest in almost immediately. I know we’ve probably crossed into hyperbole by this point, but I can’t say enough about these young actors.
I’ll admit I didn’t think Lerman was the right choice for Charlie (he seems too boyishly handsome to be an outcast), but all my reservations disappeared within a few minutes. The scenes in which he pines after Sam, knowing he’ll never be with her, brought back way more memories than I’d care to admit, and he evokes genuine concern and dread in the film’s most harrowing scenes.
Watson lays waste to any suggestions that her acting career might be done after the “Harry Potter” franchise. Sure, Sam is a dream girl that should be familiar to anyone who’s seen a teen film, but Watson gives her believable hopes, dreams and fears. She doesn’t exist solely as a prize the main character wins right before the end credits.
As for Miller, there are no compliments I can offer that will do justice to the performance this guy delivers. It simply has to be seen. As Patrick, he’s a hilarious and heartbreaking contradiction. At first, he seems to be there primarily for comic relief. But as viewers learn more about his complicated character, you realize his journey is just as important as the ones Charlie and Sam are embarking on. (Plus, he gets to cash in the PG-13 flick’s single use of the f-word brilliantly.)
“Perks” has a wonky release schedule, so I’m not sure how close it might be playing to you. Still, I urge you to seek it out. It’s a funny, poignant and powerful reminder of what it’s like to be a teenager. And I don’t mean the Hallmark card, “Saved by the Bell” version of being a teenager. I’m talking about that time in your life when the peaks were so amazing you hoped they would last forever and the valleys were so devastating that you thought you’d never recover.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight – all involving teens.