Cult teen novel morphs into disarming film in ‘Perks Of Being A Wallflower’
Anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider in high school—which is anyone who has ever been a teenager—will be able to relate to The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. It’s adapted from Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 Young Adult cult novel sensation about a troubled teen entering his freshman year of high school desperately searching for someone to connect with before his internal demons swallow him up. It may sound overly melodramatic, although in this case, the protagonist’s demons are more real and sinister than most. But the importance of finding an emotional safety net and a place to fit in gives this disarming movie a very universal appeal.
A lot can be lost in translation from page to screen, but here, Chbosky writes and directs the film himself. Having not read the book, I can’t tell you exactly what’s been cut out, but issues of drugs, teen drinking, sexuality, mental instability and a dark family secret all surface in the film. That said, the tone is surprisingly gentle, even benign, through most of the picaresque vignettes that make up the storyline, buoyed by some great performances in the leading roles.
Fifteen-year-old Charlie (Logan Lerman), is a latecomer to his freshman year, after spending time in an institution and the harrowing loss of his best friend. Smart and sensitive, he knows he has to make friends to pull himself out of depression, but he’s either harassed or ignored by the cool kids, and he’s counting the days until high school will finally be over for good. The only simpatico person he meets on the first day of classes is an English teacher (Paul Rudd) who starts loaning him books.
In freshman shop class, Charlie meets Patrick (the terrific Ezra Miller), an irreverent senior who has to take the class over in order to graduate. Sensing a kindred spirit, Patrick takes Charlie under his wing and introduces him to his stepsister, Sam (Emma Watson), also a senior, a fun-loving beauty trying to overcome the excesses of her younger years and get her life back on track. (Watson is likable and spirited, although she seems a little wholesome for a girl haunted by her slutty past.)
Through Sam and Patrick, Charlie falls in with a small band of artsy outsider kids who dance to the beat of a different drummer. “Welcome to the island of misfit toys,” Sam tells him, and his delight at finding his own tribe is palpable. Of course, complications arise, notably Charlie’s crush on Sam, even though she’s dating another guy, which is intensified when one of the other girls wants Charlie’s attention. Patrick’s covert love affair with a jock on the football team is at constant risk of exposure. And bit by bit, Charlie must confront the buried secret at the root of his own angst that could engulf him at any moment.
Set in the 1990s, the film is also a flashback feast of Clinton-era music, styles and pop culture. Everyone makes and shares mix tapes (as in audio) and goes to interactive midnight shows of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (where Patrick, of course, plays the part of Dr. Frank-N-Furter). No one has an iPhone; there’s no texting or tweeting, and no one has the option of a virtual online community to provide the illusion of relationships. These kids have to make a community the old-fashioned way—having conversations face-to-face, sharing experiences, revealing themselves in sometimes scary ways, trusting each other.
Not everything rings true. It’s unclear how these kids have access to the parent-free party house where they experiment with booze, loaded brownies and LSD. And while baby-faced Legman certainly looks 15 (the actor is 20), he and the others seem a wee bit too poised and sophisticated for high school. (Although that’s probably just how Chbosky, like most of us, chooses to remember his own high school days.)
Still, wry, scene-stealing Miller is practically worth the price of admission all by himself. And scenes where Patrick and Sam kick out the jams at a school dance, or the three friends drive through a tunnel, screaming madly for life, underscore all the drama and hope and possibility of youth that this movie so poignantly conveys.
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
HHH (out of four)
With Logan Legman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller.
Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky.
A Summit Entertainment release. Rated PG-13. 103 minutes.