The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a surprisingly effective and affecting movie, considering it was written by and produced by the writer of the hit novel of the same name. Chbosky knows his stuff, and it comes through this sweet, rather cottony, exploration of being an outsider and finding meaning there.
It helps that the leads are so extraordinary.
Now, as a quick critique, the modern song “It’s Time” by the Imagine Dragons is part of the preview. As far as this reviewer knows, the song is not used in the score of the film, which is set in 1991-92. What’s more, the idiotic line “I’m never changing who I am” is totally counter to one of the main core themes of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Onto a preview. Warning: An irresistible and glowing Emma Watson ahead:
Released on October 12, 2012
Written by Stephen Chbosky, based on his book
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Starring Emma Watson’s smile, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Paul Rudd, Kate Walsh, Melanie Lynskey, Joan Cusack , Erin Wilhelmi, and Dylan McDermott
Rated: PG-13 (On appeal, down from the previous R which was a dumb rating)
* * * * *
Charlie (Lerman) is beginning his first day of high school and is already counting down the days until he’s done. We learn that something happened during the last year that was awful in some way and that Charlie is only now recovering and functional. He is ignored and outcast, of course, while not being too aggressively bullied. He’s a reader and he connects with his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Rudd), who may be the English teacher of every modern young geek’s dreams.
Charlie encounters Patrick (Miller), a senior who seems quite happy to chart his own course and is very comfortable in his own skin, in his shop class. At a football game, to which Charlie has likely gone to try and kindle some friendships, he sees Patrick and strikes up a conversation. Patrick is kind and good and invites the awkward freshman to sit next to him. Moments later, Miss Ridiculously Radiant, also known as Sam (Watson) shows up, bursting with life. Sam is Patrick’s step-sister and they are both seniors. They love each other as only best of friends could.
These two giving, generous souls rescue Charlie from his isolation, introducing him to Mary Elizabeth (Whitman), who is (what else?) a needy, brilliant Goth, and Alice (Wilhelmi) who is a rich girl who steals jeans. This circle of friends, along with an extended group of non-popular kids, live an alternative life, different from that of the other, mainstream, popular kids in the school.
The story follows Charlie, Patrick, and Sam as their friendship develops into a deep love for and appreciation of each other. Charlie feels rescued, hopeful about life. Teen things happen to each of them, bringing tension and conflict. Charlie does stupid things while carrying a molten hot torch for Sam, whom he is certain is out of his league.
Essentially, the story plays out how you would expect. Luckily, it does this very well.
Look, Chbosky’s been in showbiz for ages and obviously has a head for what makes for easily consumed entertainment. This novel came out years ago, but he wrote for Jericho and has been involved in the biz for a while. This informs a lot of what we experience in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the movie– which is likely a step up from what is safely guessed to be a somewhat simplistic, treacly, semi-emotive novel.
Onto the film itself.
First off, Charlie is not a real person. He’s an amalgamation of pretty much everything Chbosky thought ought to be in this character. How many middle schoolers actually dread high school to the point that they start the countdown at day one of freshman year? The traumas in his past are fictional treatments of truly horrible things, and they are meant to be an explanation of Charlie.
But Charlie needs to exist outside of those things and those traumas need to be taken far more seriously than a trauma that he needs to get over in order to live a normal life. Mental illness is rarely solved solely through therapy and facing up to one’s demons.
And the letter conceit. What exactly is that for other than as a device to do some main character voice-over narration?
So what this all gets at is that the script is nothing special. It hits all the notes, touches all the bases, and gets the fundamentals right when it comes to relationships. People are flawed, as they’re supposed to be, and choices are made that direct the tension and conflict.
But none of the tale here surprises. Not much thought went into crafting a fresh story. The critique at the beginning of this review regarding the line “I’m never changing who I am” comes into play when we look at the characters. Each of the main character arcs actually follows the character moving past something that they dislike about themselves. They change who they are. Sure, they don’t change their fundamental nature, but they’re not complacent about themselves.
The reason The Perks of Being a Wallflower itself surprises is that the actors elevate the otherwise workaday story into a fantastical fable of friendship and goodness. Lerman embodies a fragile, mortally terrifed young freshman with his jitters, wide-eyed stare, and awkwardness. Miller nails the Patrick character, giving him far more than just an easy flamboyance. Watson radiates a determination to embrace moments in life, but adds fear and self-esteem issues to her excellent character.
These actors are why this movie is, all things considered, really enjoyable. There’s good comedy that wouldn’t be funny with lesser performances. There’s genuinely effective pathos, which would be flat and boring if not for these actors.
Lerman, Watson, and Miller rescue this movie from boredom.
The movie spends some time with the line, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” This unbelievably trite, faux-wisdomy line captures the major flaw of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, as alluded to earlier. Sexual abuse is not so easily solved, and neither is grief and guilt over the death of loved ones.
In fact, the simplistic way these issues are treated in The Perks of Being a Wallflower made this reviewer genuinely angry. You don’t want reflection on your movie to cause fury, folks.
All of that said, this is a cotton-candy movie disguised as a deep statement on teenage-hood. It’s enjoyable, goes down easy, and mostly harmless.
Content warnings: Language, drug use, sensuality, and some tense images.
Writing: 2.5 Acting: 5 Overall: 4
Sorry for not including my usual silliness at the end of this film review. But there’s something I have to say about this movie and my reaction to it, which would not be appropriate in the review. You are still free to share this review.
I identified easily with Charlie in many ways. As a child and youth, until I was 17, I experienced plenty of crappy stuff which left a mark. I want go into specifics, but for starters, I grew up in a strange cult. I came out of that cult just in time for a senior year in a public high school in a small town. I’d spent the previous 7 years in the private, homeschool-esque school that the cult ran.
I was a painful introvert. I couldn’t speak to people in anything resembling an effective way. I had no idea who I was and was exceedingly uncomfortable in pretty much any social situation. I deliberately isolated myself.
But in that one senior year of public school, I made some extraordinary friends whom I did not find, but who rescued me from myself. I can’t begin to thank them enough for their generosity of spirit, their openness and tolerance and patience with me, their matter-of-fact acceptance of me as a person with something of value to offer, even what I had to offer was simply– me.
So I thank The Perks of Being a Wallflower for reminding me of how much I owe, like Charlie, to extraordinary people who reached out and showed me how to live a little larger and be a little more infinite.