As someone who’s now written two (unpublished) screenplays that attempt to honestly capture what it’s like to be young and truly fallible, let me just say, it ain’t easy. To find that perfect mixture between painful honesty, humor, and well-crafted characters that are more than just archetypes that have been done to death is as tricky a proposition as they come. For every Fast Times at Ridgemont High (that movie is way darker than you remember it being) or Superbad, you get twenty vacuous teen dramas/comedies like American Pie or something starring Zac Efron. Being young is full of life but it’s also incredibly painful and consistently tragic, and finding the mix between those two realities is the ultimate balancing act. Stephen Chbosky’s self-directed adaptation of his own novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, successfully navigates those waters.
After his best friend committed suicide the previous year, the depressed and socially awkward Charlie (Logan Lerman) is starting his freshman year of high school. Very intelligent, Charlie is so shy that he can’t even answer his English teacher’s (Paul Rudd) questions although he clearly knows the answers. After respecting his brazen behavior in their shop class, Charlie befriends the gay Patrick (Ezra Miller) and the beguiling Sam (Harry Potter‘s Emma Watson). Patrick is secretly dating a deeply closeted high school football player while Sam is in & out of a continuing series of destructive relationships with exploitative older men. Charlie’s depression and anxiety begin to subside as he grows closer with Sam and Patrick (as well as their circle of friends), but when Charlie begins to fall in love with Sam and realizes that even his fun-loving friends have their own problems, his own past and tragedies threaten to derail his new life.
Taking place over Charlie’s freshman year, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an episodic collage of an often brutally honest portrayal of high school life. Though it’s set in the 1990s, the film/book is as relevant to young people today as it was when it first took place. A refreshingly truthful and non-judgmental look at teenage drug use, sexuality, and partying, Perks removes any filter of sentimentality or the 20/20 of hindsight and truly captures the beauty and hellishness of being young. If you were an awkward or sensitive high school student and you don’t recognize part of yourself in this movie, you’re clearly not watching the same film I did. From the way that the kids lose themselves in good music, party both for fun’s sake and also to escape ugly truths, the way that we justify our own fear to tell people how we really feel, Perks can just be devastatingly “true” and that’s probably the best compliment I can give the film.
Stephen Chbosky’s script, direction, and source material all contribute to the film’s veracity, but a significant portion of the credit must also be given to the film’s wonderful cast and it’s three principal leads. I was only familiar with Logan Lerman because of his work in Percy Jackson (which I’ve never actually “watched” but we used to play it in the DVD player at work when it was released), and I’m now hoping that he can prove himself to be a promising top-tier young talent. At first I was thrown off by how fidgety and just plain awkward his Charlie was, but that was true for the character and it mostly disappears as the film progresses. Charlie is suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and Logan Lerman captures the deepness of his depression and anxiety, but he also taps into his charm and intelligence and warmth. Charlie is a complex, fully realized young figure and Logan Lerman can take a lot of the credit for that.
Emma Watson should finally put aside any concerns that her post-Harry Potter career wouldn’t take off because Sam rivals Charlie and Patrick for tragic complexity, and Emma rises to the occasion with aplomb. Although she might be struggling with an American accent just a little bit, it’s not distracting, and the simultaneously wounded but full of joie de vivre Sam becomes one of the film’s emotional centers. Emma’s maturity into an exceptionally talented young actress over the last ten years or so has been a true delight to behold, and her performance in Perks becomes the peak of her career to date. In fact, Sam is such a compelling character that you almost wish that you could have seen more of her and what it was in her character that led her to make so many poor life decisions while still being so clearly intelligent.
To me though, Ezra Miller should become the break-out star of the film, and if I were a casting director, I think he could write his own check as both a comedic and dramatic actor. He is a serious double threat in that department. Although I’m sure Patrick was a nuanced and subtle character in the book and script, Ezra Miller resists any urges to make Patrick into a flat gay stereotype. In fact, remove the literal fact that Patrick was gay, and he could have easily been an especially theatrical hipster. I probably related to the Patrick character more than anyone else in the film. Perhaps more than anyone else in the film, Patrick proves to be such a rollercoaster of emotions from spectacular highs to rock-bottom lows, and Ezra Miller never misses a beat. A real life bisexual, Miller’s performance and the Patrick character should become a landmark role in the younger LGBT community.
I think it’s fair to say that The Perks of Being a Wallflower has the best soundtrack of any film I’ve reviewed since Dazed & Confused or Almost Famous. There’s a scene where David Bowie’s “Heroes” is being played (guess what my Song of the Day is going to be today) that rivals the use of Regina Spektor’s “Hero” (I didn’t even make the name connection until literally just now) in (500) Days of Summer as one of my favorite uses of music in a movie. With a collection of great 90s indie rock and seminal 80s post-punk music, Perks has, after just one viewing, joined Rushmore, Garden State, and (500) Days of Summer as having one of my favorite soundtracks ever. The music selection is perfect from the Smiths to Sonic Youth to L7 to some great uses of numbers from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Perks is proof of the power of a great soundtrack (and it makes sense within the context of the film considering how important music is to its characters).
I’ll stop now and just say that for a first feature film, Stephen Chbosky really hit a home run with The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Few people can hope to have this kind of success right out of the gate, and it gives me hope that he can go on to write other great novels that become superb films. I am actually willing to go so far as to say that Perks is now tied for the best film I’ve seen from 2012 (with Liberal Arts) although I should probably reiterate the fact that the only Best Picture nominee I’ve seen so far is Beasts of the Southern Wild (the others haven’t came out on Netflix yet). That should be changing soon as those films are slowly dripping out of the Netflix DVD/Blu-Ray rental gate. If you want a charming, insightful, witty, heartbreaking, and uplifting look at high school, it’s hard for me to think of a better film than The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Final Score: A+