Much like adolescence itself, the new coming-of-age drama The Perks of Being a Wallflower contains moments of beauty and insight drifting in a sea of melodrama. Adapted by author Stephen Chbosky from his 1999 YA novel of the same name (a book I must confess I haven't read), this is the kind of movie that my 14-year-old self probably would have fallen head over heels for, as it effectively transplants the '80s John Hughes model of teenagers with more heart than good sense talking endlessly about their problems to my old stomping ground in the early '90s. Twenty years removed from that time period (not to mention that version of myself), it's still easy to be pulled into the movie by the tug of nostalgia, but I can also see through the story's cracks more clearly, in the same way that whenever I re-watch The Breakfast Club nowadays, I actually find myself sympathizing with Assistant Principal Vernon for having to waste a whole Saturday babysitting a bunch of naval-gazing, back-talking teenagers.
Set in the prehistoric era of 1991 -- back when "instant messaging" meant passing notes in class and assembling a playlist required two tape decks, a stack of audio cassettes and an entire afternoon -- Perks's central wallflower is Charlie (Logan Lerman), a socially awkward, but whip-smart 14-year-old gifted with remarkable insight and a flair for the written word (not that he's a stand-in for the author or anything... say, what is the male equivalent of a "Mary Sue" anyway?) who is poised to enter the alien world known as high school. His first few days there are predictably terrible, filled with hallway humiliations and keeping his keen intelligence under wraps in class lest he be labeled a teacher's pet. But his situation improves when he falls in with a bunch of seniors who are outsiders and proud of it -- including Patrick (Ezra Miller), a flamboyant, barely-closeted bon vivant type, his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), a semi-good girl drawn to bad boys and Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), a proto-goth with multiple viewings of The Craft in her future. Charlie likes each of his new pals, but he's particularly drawn to Sam both for obvious physical reasons (now that she's not playing Hermione anymore, Watson is allowed to be photographed as a lust object) and also because she reminds him of the most important woman of his life: his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey), a tender, damaged soul who perished in a car accident when he was still a child.
Chbosky's narrative spans a single school year, during which time Charlie experiences all the typical teenage rites of passage, from his first kiss and first pot brownie to his first girlfriend (and subsequent first bad break-up) and first cafeteria fight. Leaving aside the fact that Lerman looks every bit his 20 years, he's an appealing hero to follow, a retroactively aspirational figure for overgrown wallflowers to wish they were like back in the day. In fact, all of these performers are a pleasure to spend time with; Miller is like a less thuggish version of Judd Nelson's teen rebel, while Watson creates a relatable dream girl who is refreshingly not of the manic pixie variety. (Paul Rudd is also perfectly cast as an English teacher that takes a special interest in Charlie. He seems like such a good guy, I even forgave him for forcing the poor kid to read On the Road and A Separate Peace as extracurricular activities.) Chbosky's sensitivity towards his characters and the way he allows them to revel in the little joys of teenage life is catnip for viewers who tend to romanticize those four years beyond all logical reason. Just like his patron saint, John Hughes, he understands that the one of the chief perks of that otherwise tumultuous period in our lives are those moments of discovery in which we can feel our world expanding in small but perceptible ways, be it through a new friendship, a great book or a revelatory new song blasting from the car tape deck as you and your friends ease on down the road. If a film can bottle that feeling onscreen -- as Chbosky does in this movie's best moments -- audiences will be willing to forgive it a lot of its missteps.
I know that I actively tried to look the other way during many of the director's more questionable creative choices, beginning with Charlie's extraneous voiceover narration, a narrative crutch that should almost always be the first thing to cut from any teen movie. (Or really any movie, for that matter.) I also could have done without Watson being framed by a halo of light when Charlie first sets eyes on Sam, an on-the-nose image that screams "first-time filmmaker." Perhaps loath to pare down too much of his book, Chbosky makes room for a few subplots that fail to pay off in any meaningful way, including Patrick's secret romance with a closeted football player and Charlie's older sister's relationship with a potentially abusive boyfriend. But the most objectionable material occurs in the final act, when Chbosky drops a bombshell about Charlie's relationship with his Aunt Helen that completely upends the movie's tone. Revealed in the clumsiest possible way, this development -- which perhaps was handled more effectively on the page -- just comes across as a cheap ploy for some late-inning drama and, even worse, recasts his fascination with Sam in a decidedly creepy light. That this development is hurriedly introduced and then not dealt with in any substantive way makes it all the more aggravatingly manipulative. There's a lot to like about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but Chbosky has some growing up to do before he steps behind the camera again.
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