Category: Teen Dramas


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Have you ever encountered a sequel in a franchise where it’s clear that overall the product is significantly better but because fundamental structural issues haven’t been addressed, it’s hard to appreciate the improvements? It’s a common phenomenon in video games with yearly sequels where significant mechanical tweaks are made but the formula starts to feel stale and basic problems are never really solved. It’s never something I’ve encountered with a film franchise before The Hunger Games though. Long time readers will know that I consider the book to be a considerable improvement over its predecessor, but maybe because the first Hunger Games film was already an improvement over the source material, it’s hard to appreciate the strides this entry made.

Suzanne Collins is a good storyteller but her prose is woefully deficient and it makes reading the books a slog. And one of the wonderful benefits of the film version was that I wasn’t forced to wade through her amateurish mastery of the English language (not to mention Gary Ross’s compelling direction and conception of what Panem would look like). And since the book of Catching Fire improved her storytelling ten fold (by truly fleshing out the world that Katniss and company inhabited), I assumed that the movie would be even better. But, perhaps it was not having the poor prose to distract me, this time I was forced to acknowledge even deeper problems in the Hunger Games universe.

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Before this review takes on an overly negative turn, let there be no misunderstanding that I thoroughly enjoyed Catching Fire and it joins Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 as one of this year’s blockbusters with actual brains. As far as modern dystopian science fiction for teenagers go, I’m hard-pressed to name a franchise with wider reach than The Hunger Games that also deserves said fandom. The action set-pieces during the film’s third act eclipse those even in the first, and the number of stars that director Francis Lawrence gathered for this entry is almost mind-boggling. But, and I’ll elaborate on this more shortly, one glaring problem with the film kept me from totally immersing myself this time around.

For those who haven’t seen the first one (or read the book), stop now because I’m about to spoil the ending for you. After finding a way to keep herself and fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive during the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence) quickly discovers that surviving the Hunger Games was the easy part. Forced on a circus publicity tour around the 12 districts of PanEm, Katniss learns that she has become the symbol of an uprising against the totalitarian Capital. But if she wants to keep her and her family alive, she’s going to have to prove to President Snow (Don’t Look Now‘s Donald Sutherland) that her fake love with Peeta which got her through the Hunger Games is real and it’s real enough to subdue the uprising.

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But, the film would be really boring if it was just Jennifer Lawrence pretending to love the emotionally reserved (and supremely dull) Josh Hutcherson, and in order to ensure that Katniss can’t become the face of the revolution, President Snow and the new Gamemaker for the 75th Annual Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Synecdoche, New York‘s Phillip Seymour Hoffman), devise a wrinkle to this year’s game. Known as the Quarter Quell, every 25 years the Hunger Games rules are changed dramatically and this year, the tributes are chosen from a pool of past winners and both Katniss and Peeta inevitably have their names drawn.

In my review of the book, I talked about how Catching Fire‘s lengthy prelude (the action doesn’t really begin until the film’s final act) added context to the Hunger Games universe. Not only did we learn more about the different districts and why revolution has been so effectively suppressed (but also why Katniss is the spark needed to make it… catch fire), but by spending time getting to know the other tributes, it allowed their to be more characters with depth beyond Katniss and Peeta. Of course, the introduction of great supporting characters like Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), and Beete (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Jeffrey Wright) is that it subjects Katniss to the film’s biggest problem: boring protagonist syndrome.

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Katniss is one of the great female heroines of the modern age alongside Harry Potter‘s Hermione and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Lisbeth Salander. She’s a total bad-ass and her life isn’t primarily devoted to her romantic interests (unlike a certain resident of Forks, Washington) though she’s allowed to have a romance. But, Katniss is also something of a blank slate and a cipher for readers to project themselves onto and while she’s usually defined by her bad-ass feat of heroics, if she’s not killing something with a bow, you realize there isn’t any depth to this girl (at least until Mockingjay).

And the first film solved this problem by having Katniss constantly doing something cool. There’s more exposition and universe-building in Catching Fire and, thus, more time to see Katniss interacting with others, and except when she’s playing across the wooden and entirely one-dimensional Peeta, everyone in the film is more compelling than her. Woody Harrelson (Rampart) is particularly magnificent as the drunken Haymitch as he continues to be (despite all conventional wisdom) one of the most compelling actors of the last fifteen years (when he’s given the right roles).

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New-comer to the franchise Jena Malone also steals every second she’s on screen as the deliciously bitchy Johanna who quickly reveals her own hidden depths, but anyone who’s seen Donnie Darko or Saved! knows how talented she is. And Sam Claflin is charming with enough of an edge of “is he good or bad” to make him interesting despite the ultimate conclusion. And of course, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Donald Sutherland all turn in great roles for a series they are probably too talented to be a part of.

That’s not to discount Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. After Silver Linings Playbook and Winter’s Bone, she’s secured her title as her generation’s most promising actress, but Katniss was a particularly thin role to begin with and it feels like she has even little do this time around. Katniss is particularly “ethos”-less in this entry compared to her comrades and that makes it even harder to care for her. Her saving grace as a character this time around is that she’s usually not too far from Peeta and he can make anyone look like a character from a Kenneth Lonergan film (which is so weird cause he’s not that boring in the books).

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By focusing so much on the flatness of Katniss’s character in this entry (and a general sense that the early exposition and world-building didn’t work nearly as well on screen as it did in the book), I should reiterate that I really enjoyed Catching Fire. And, in many meaningful ways, it is a significant improvement over the first film. But, I also couldn’t stop thinking about those things the entire time the film was running. If you’re on the edge about whether or not you should see the film after this review, don’t be. You should. It’s one of the best “event” films of the year. I just wish Katniss was a more well-rounded heroine for our modern age.

Final Score: B+

 

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If you’ve been reading this blog for any extended period of time, you know that my tastes in cinema tend towards the obscure and artsy. And, generally, this makes me the perfect candidate to enjoy movies that have gained “cult” status over the years. Although I’ve never been to a midnight showing (cause I never had a way to get to the ones in Morgantown when we still had them), I consider myself to be a pretty huge Rocky Horror Picture Show fan, and I know far too many of the words and choreography to that show, and the list of cult films I enjoy goes on. 2001’s Donnie Darko is one of the most popular and defining cult films of the 2000s. I last watched it when it was first released (I was 12 at the time), and I did not like it. At all. Over the years, I’ve grown to think maybe I was too young to appreciate it. Well, as a 24 year old, I still find it to be mostly muddled gobbledygook with some occasional great elements thrown in. And I still can’t for the life of me comprehend why this has become such a modern cult classic.

And before some Donnie Darko fanboy jumps down my throat for not understanding the film (which seems to be the case whenever I criticize either this film [which I find to be sometimes bad, usually good, once or twice great]) or Inception, which I legitimately enjoy), I get the movie. Although the theatrical version (which is what I watched earlier today and which will be the version of the film that I review) has a fairly open-ended finale, there are still only two real ways to interpret the events of the film (either a Looper-style stable-time loop or the film is essentially David Lynch’s Lost Highway with a talking bunny. I realize that it’s the former in the Director’s Cut). It’s that I find Donnie Darko to be a ham-fisted tale, bloated with half-assed subplots and at a mere two hours, I still found myself constantly begging for the film to draw to a close. If the Director’s Cut is longer, I honestly can’t imagine any way it made this film better.

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In October of 1988, on the heels of the Dukakis/Bush election, Donnie Darko (End of Watch‘s Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled young teenager living with his family in the Blue Velvet-style suburban Hellhole of Middlesex. Donnie’s not your average angsty teenager though. He is potentially a total crazy person showing all of the signs of classic paranoid schizophrenia. With chronic sleep-walking (he may wake up later at the top of a mountain or at the local golf course), Donnie begins to see an “imaginary” talking man in a bunny suit who tells him that the world will end in 28 days. And as Donnie spends the next 28 days battling with a puritanical teacher, a phony self-help guru, and the douche bags who attend his high school (as well as his own mental illness), it might be for the best for Donnie if the world ends after all. The only thing keeping him attached to anything is the appearance of new girl Gretchen (Saved‘s Jena Malone) that Donnie quickly falls for.

There are, in my mind, exactly two consistently excellent things about Donnie Darko. The first is the soundtrack which is a great collection of 1980s alternative/indie rock hits. And let’s face it, I’m not sure if there was ever a better era for alternative rock. A lot of great Oingo Boingo, Tears for Fears, and Joy Division. You can’t ask for more than that. Also, Jena Malone was a marvelous breath of fresh air in a film full of awkward, stilted performances. She was (she’s not that young anymore) one of Hollywood’s most interesting and talented young actresses, and it’s really a shame that she never got more mainstream exposure. She’s beautiful and talented, and she put more nuance and subtlety into her portrayal of Gretchen than everyone else was able to find over the course of the whole film. That’s not necessarily true. Mary McDonnell also found some real emotional gravitas as Donnie’s beleaguered mother.

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The movie’s called Donnie Darko. Donnie is the main character. So, if you’re assuming that a significant portion of the film rests on Jake Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, you’d be right. This was one of Jake’s earliest high-profile roles (along with October Sky). I think Jake’s a great actor. His performance in Brokeback Mountain is mesmerizing and a perfect display of male vulnerability and sexual aggression all at once. He’s not good in this role. He has some good moments. But when he’s trying to look demented and mentally unhinged, he succeeds, but it’s also so comically over-the-top that I begin to wonder if he’s trying to be satirical. The film hinges on me believing that he’s crazy, and while I believed he was crazy, I would have appreciated a little restraint. It’s good to know that by the time Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain came around, Gyllenhaal had matured as an actor.

I mentioned this earlier, but this film is the rare movie that clocks in at under two hours (I think I had it at an hour and forty-seven minutes when the end credits began to roll), but it’s just overflowing with material that needed to be cut. There are at least half a dozen subplots in this film that supplement the central story of Donnie losing his god damn mind and worrying about the impending apocalypse. And there isn’t a single one that works. It’s almost as if director Richard Kelly realized he didn’t have enough material for a full-film but didn’t take the time to write out at least one or two good subplots and just made six insultingly thin ones instead. And, while the film does do a really excellent job of stringing together some of the seemingly random shit the movie throws at you just in time for its ending, that was the rare beam of proficiency in the film’s storytelling.

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As an allegory for modern teen angst, the film is just as hit or miss. There are times where it captures the pain and heart-ache that we feel as teenagers as well as anything else. It has highs that are nearly as high as The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It just doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word consistency. While I admire characters that defy easy categorization (it’s what makes the people that populate the films of Kenneth Lonergan so entrancing), Donnie’s characterization often defies any human logic. And not often in a good way. He’s dickish to people he has no reason to be an asshole to, and while I understand that he’s a crazy person, his acting out doesn’t always seem centered in whatever psychosis he’s suffering from. As a character, Donnie is a hot mess (and gives a bad wrap to all other Don’s out there. *cough cough* me.)

Despite the total thrashing I just gave this film, it does have its moments. The score is amazing (not just the soundtrack). Jena Malone solidified herself as a rising indie talent in this film. In terms of sheer atmosphere, Donnie Darko captures something essentially anxious and fear-driven in both its visuals and its thematic content. I just wish that Donnie Darko could keep up the illusion of competency over its entire run-time. I understand how many people LOVE this movie, and my mostly indifference to it isn’t meant as disrespect to a film that so many hold dear to their heart. It’s just a statement of both my inability to connect with the film as well as what I hope is a logical pointing out of some of the myriad flaws working against this modern cult classic.

Final Score: B-

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Careers that are blown out too soon create an aura of legend around many young stars that were taken from us in their prime. Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, etc. Fresh faces with all of the talent in the world are snuffed out and the world is left with the question, “What could have been?” This sad fate and the speculation surrounding future “what ifs?” is perhaps no better personified than by James Dean. Dead at the age of 24, with only three credited roles to his name, James Dean’s star still burns bright today despite how little we ever got to see of him. Ever since I first saw the film ten years ago, Rebel Without a Cause has always been a personal favorite of mine. And on this particular viewing (particularly having now seen Giant in recent years), the sense of tragedy over the loss of such an immense talent became almost overwhelming, as this film remains simply one of the best of the 1950s.

I honestly feel like this has to be one of the least understood films I’ve ever watched because critical explanations of its themes and messages are all over the place, and if anyone tries to tell me that it’s a film about the moral decay of American youth, they’re missing the forest for the trees. Rebel Without a Cause is as thematically complex a film from the 1950s that America could have possibly hoped to produce, and the subtle homosexual content was just light years ahead of its time. A film about family, our notions of masculine identity (and where said notions come from), the way that the failings and neglects of our loved ones lead to neurosis and dysfunction, and the painful confusions of youth, Rebel Without a Cause is a timeless classic, and while something indefinable about the film keeps it from perfection (perhaps an intentional emotional distance the film creates), it still set the bar for all future teenage dramas to come.

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(side note. This film’s in color but I had trouble finding color stills from the film.)

After moving to a new school because of problems with fighting, Jim Stark (James Dean) doesn’t take long before his emotional baggage gets him in trouble yet again. The film opens with a heavily intoxicated Jim playing with a toy monkey he found in the streets before being dragged to juvenile hall where it becomes readily apparent that his “don’t give a damn” demeanor is a front for dealing with the conflict between his hen-pecked, weak father and his over-bearing, oppressive mother. Though they don’t really interact yet, Jim is joined at juvenile hall by the runaway Judy (Gypsy‘s Natalie Wood), whose father has simply stopped showing her affection as she’s gotten older, as well as by the angry and abandoned Plato (Giant‘s Sal Mineo), whose parents have left hm alone in the care of a nanny. And over the course of one day, these wayward souls are drawn together.

Jim has one fear in life, and it’s to be a “chicken.” This stems from the cowardly nature of his father and the lack of an assertive masculine role model in his life. And although Jim desperately wants to fit in, his sensitive demeanor and foreign nature make him an immediate target for the school’s tougher crowd, which Judy runs with. After a fateful trip to the Los Angeles planetarium, Jim’s honor is called into question by Buzz (Corey Allen), and the pair have a non-fatal knife fight. And that night, when Jim’s dad is unable to muster up a reasonable explanation to Jim, Jim then faces Buzz in a distastrous game of chicken amid a high bluff that changes Jim, Judy, and Plato’s life forever.

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This particular interpretation of the film has gotten more popular in recent years, but I don’t know how anyone can watch the film and not realize it. Sal Mineo’s Plato is a homosexual and develops an almost immediate crush on Jim from the moment they first meet. Sal Mineo was gay in real life and James Dean has long been rumored to be bisexual. And, the homoerotic overtones in this movie are even more through the roof than they were in Giant. The longing glances that Plato shoots at Jim are more sexually charges than the ones shared between Jim and Judy. I obviously don’t think that Plato’s repressed homosexuality are at the root of his tragic fall (that lends itself to his parental abandonment), but Rebel Without a Cause has to be applauded for being a film from the 1950s that made a character as gay as possible without ever coming right out and saying he was gay.

Plato’s homosexuality is interesting within the context of the film itself though because Rebel Without a Cause is so interested in what it means to be a man. Not only what it means to be a man, but how men define ourselves in relation to women and our relationships with women. Jim is so angry and confused because society has told him what it means to be a man. To have honor and machismo. But, his role model is his father, who at one point we see in a frilly gown subservient to his domineering mother. And so, Jim is sensitive and gentle, but he nearly rebels against that side of his personality because it isn’t what he feels he needs to be. All of the characters are products of these psychic crises where there personalities are being torn apart from their own personal emotional needs, the failings of their parents, and the molds they feel society wants them to fill.

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It’s not just the thematic complexity of the film or its maturity for the era which birthed it that makes Rebel Without a Cause such a classic. It’s the fact that teenage angst and ennui had never been portrayed with such stark realism before. James Dean’s performance in this film is just legendary. I’m yet to see East of Eden (don’t worry. It’s on the list for this blog), but between Giant and this film, it’s painfully clear that James Dean would have been one of the biggest stars to ever live had he not died. Whether it’s his painful cry of “They’re tearing me apart!” as his parents bicker or the innocent way he plays with the monkey he found in the street, James Dean captures the perfect balance between youthful innocence and the driftlessness that defines Jim. And, much like his contemporary Marlon Brando, it never feels like Dean is acting. His performance remains perfectly natural throughout.

And Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood are nearly as good. Sal Mineo’s bravery in bringing such a feminine but in absolutely no way campy male hero to life is astounding, and he layers Plato with so much anger but a dark sensitivity that watching his emotional progression (and then his frightening regression by film’s end) is a masterclass of screen acting. Much like James Dean (and Natalie Wood for that matter), Mineo was a talent that was robbed from us far too soon. And Natalie Wood… The lustful sexual undertones that she plays with during the scenes with her father (where she simply wants chaste male affection but her father refuses because he’s afraid of his own sexual feelings for his daughter) are lightning. And like the other two leads, Natalie Wood bares his soul in a way completely uncommon for the era to speak truths about the painful realities of being a teenager.

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There was something about this film that maybe didn’t ultimately click with me, but nearly 24 hours removed from my most recent viewing, I still can’t put my finger on what it was. Just a vague feeling that something at the peripheral of the film was keeping me from totally immersing myself in this world. Still, that microscopic quibble aside, if you have even the most passing interest in cinema and have somehow managed to not see Rebel Without a Cause yet, drop whatever you’re doing and watch it. Without question, it remains one of the defining films of the 1950s and one of the most important films concerning what it means to be a teenager that’s ever been produced. And, if, when the credits roll, you don’t find yourself mourning the loss of James Dean’s monumental talent, you are unable to grasp one of the most exciting talents to ever hit the big screen.

Final Score: A

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 RushmoreGarden 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+