The Perks of Being a Wallflower
By Jenna Brower
September 28, 2012
Cinematic coming-of-age tales are a dime a dozen. They are often set in high schools that look sort of like yours, but with a much nicer facility and cafeteria.Or a looser dress code. Or wacky, dialogue-crackling teachers. Or almost-30-year-olds playing … you.
None of that is to be found in director Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which he also wrote and adapted from his own 1999 book. It is a faithful adaptation, no surprises there; Chbosky obviously felt strongly about this project and wanted it seen as he intended. He does a good job—the realism is what pushes this movie into the better-than-expected, as well as its cast in their sweet and painful moments.
“Dear friend,” begins the movie; the book begins the same. The protagonist, Charlie (Logan Lerman), writes letters to an anonymous “friend,” detailing his anxieties about starting high school, making friends and dealing with depression. For those first days of school, Charlie talks to no one and no one talks to Charlie aside from his English teacher (played by Paul Rudd in a rare, serious role).
Then Charlie observes an outgoing senior boy in his shop class, and he works up enough nerve to sit and talk to him at the school’s football game. This is Patrick, played to fearless perfection by Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin, a drastically different role). Patrick’s stepsister, Sam, soon joins them, and Charlie makes his second friend and first crush. We understand why. Emma Watson (absolutely blooming in her first post-Potter role) portrays a character who is acutely kind to Charlie, aware of his crush without using it against him because she knows what that’s like all too well. These two older, semi-wiser students take Charlie into their fold of protection, introducing him to more friends who skirt popularity (but don’t care). They also introduce him to good music like The Smiths. Oh, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. If it’s starting to sound like clichéd high school territory, then it’s more surprising to find out that it’s not. Chbosky manages to not make stereotypes, in his characters or their lives. Charlie's friends are actual people with actual high school problems that the movie neither glorifies or trivializes, but simply portrays honestly. Drug use, sexual identity, isolation, depression—it's all pitched with a keen eye for authenticity.
Like Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), another friend in the group who starts to crush on Charlie. She’s a radical Buddhist feminist who puts together the Rocky Horror shows, but her face goes soft when she’s alone with Charlie, asking, “Do you like me? Do you think I’m pretty?” Secretly yearning to be affirmed.
The film has other touching moments like that and plenty of laughter too, but more often, it’s painful. It’s painful to be Patrick: funny, irreverent, but masking his feelings. It’s painful to be Sam: beautiful, caring, but heartbroken, used and abused in her life. It’s painful to be Charlie: a passive outsider, always looking in without knowing how to be in or how to live in the moment.
What are the perks of being a teenager? In this film, they seem few and far between because the truth is that it’s hard. But Perks does its best to show if you’re lucky, you find wonderful friendships and people who love you. Even the messy, emotional, problem-riddled you. So there is hope for the now-teenagers, as any now-adult knows: You will make it out alive, but you may or may not make it out as the person you thought you’d be. Really, that part’s up to you.
While a previous read-through of the novel isn't necessary to enjoy the film, those who have read Chbosky's work know he had his work cut out for him in adapting it to the screen. With any highly anticipated adaptation, apprehension is high—think, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings. But thankfully, Chbosky delivers, proving that the book-to-movie process is most smooth when the original author is not only involved, but is allowed to take the reigns. Fans of the 1999 novel, rest assured: Those iconic quotes ("...And in that moment I swear we were infinite," and "We accept the love we think we deserve.") that have become 75 percent of the tattoos gracing skin today made it into the script. For fans and newcomers alike, Perks is a refreshing, inspiring and, above all, honest two hours of cinema.