Director: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Nina Dobrev, Johnnny Simmons, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Rudd, Joan Cusack, Tom Savini
Running Time: 102 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
While watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower it soon became clear to me why it undeservedly tanked at the box office despite surprisingly strong critical notices across the board. That gap between what's expected going in and what the film ultimately delivers is huge. Trying to market this exclusively as a teen movie is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It just doesn't fit, but not because it isn't a movie for teens. It's just not only for them. There's a universal quality about it that extends further than the age of its characters to reach adults who remember what it was like to be that age at that time, or really, any time. The events take place in a frighteningly accurate and detailed 1991 as the film plays as if it were actually made in that year, then stuffed in a time capsule labeled "2012." Thematically and visually darker than you'd anticipate, it carefully handles some really challenging material like depression, suicide, gay bashing, sexual abuse and domestic violence with uncommon intelligence and restraint, more closely resembling suburban dramas like The Ice Storm or American Beauty than your typical "teen" movie.
This has a lot of ground to cover well and if you told me a novelist and first-time director made it I'd be shocked because it just looks and feels so cinematic. If you told me the director also wrote the book it's based on then you'd have to scrape me off the floor. But that's just what Stephen Chbosky does in successfully adapting his own 1999 cult teen novel to the screen, proving it's possible for a writer to maintain enough creative distance from his own work to effectively shepherd its translation to the screen. Already in college when the book came out, I was a little too old to be in the intended reading audience and therefore slightly too young to be the exact age these characters were in '91. But it's close enough. I definitely recall that bright lime green cover in bookstores all over and thinking how juvenile it looked. Talk about literally judging a book by its cover. Not only is there nothing juvenile about this story, it's sophisticated and mature, never once pandering or talking down to its audience. With its protagonist fresh out of the psychiatric hospital due to past trauma and desperately aching to fit in, it might make for an interesting double feature with Silver Linings Playbook. That there are even similarities in tone at all should give you an idea just how good it is. In a year full of surprises, this is yet another big one.
Shy, introverted Pittsburgh teen Charlie (Logan Lerman) is about to start his freshman year of high school and experience all the adolescent pain and joys that accompany it. Still emotionally reeling from the suicide of a friend, and struggling with his own depression, he does get support from his parents (Kate Walsh and Dylan McDermott) and older sister Candace (Nina Dobrev), but spends most of his time writing letters to an imaginary recipient. As a fact Charlie describes as sad, his only friend the first day of school is his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who's at least is someone to talk to and exposes him to literary classics like The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. Social refuge comes when he's befriended by seniors Sam (Emma Watson) and her step-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller), who welcome him to their inner circle with open arms and slowly get him to come out of his shell, exposing to a fun side of life he's never experienced. She's kind of a bad girl trying to go good while he's openly gay and carrying on a secret relationship with popular football player Brad (Johnny Simmons). As Charlie's popularity and confidence grows with a new set of friends, so do his feelings for Sam, which in addition to causing some problems amongst them, threatens to reignite the painful memories of a childhood trauma that could send him back into his isolated world.
All the different ways this could have gone wrong are avoided at every turn. This could have easily turned out as an after-school special when you consider the thematic content, but Chbosky clearly had other, grander plans. Not everyone's high school experience was the same but the one thing that seems universally accepted is that each person thought that theirs was the absolute worst. Possibly ten times worse than Charlie's in their own mind. This replicates that feeling and it would be hard for anyone to not at least find one character or situation they relate to in it. Ultimately though, it's a period piece. It's hard to specifically pinpoint exactly what makes the setting feel so much like an embodiment of the early '90's because the details are so numerous that hardly a scene passes where I wasn't subtly taken aback by the accuracy of a particular clothing, music or even vehicle choice. It wraps you in the warm, familiar embrace of nostalgia in a different way than, say, Adventureland, by carefully placing everything in the background rather than foreground. It's 1991 just because it feels like it is without Chbosky ever forcing those details down our throats. The events probably could taken place during any era but that it happened during this one feels especially important beyond the simple reason that its setting was adapted from the novel. With texting and anti-bullying campaigns running rampant there's absolutely no way this story could have taken today and carried the same impact. This is probably it's likely to connect with audiences older than the studio expected. There was very little help for troubled students and stigmas attached to much of it back then, which raises the stakes of Charlie's story and, to an even greater extent, Patrick's.
As played by Percy Jackson's Logan Lerman, a protagonist who could have very easily come across as a whiny cliche of teen angst is so likable it's practically impossible to root against him More often using body language than actual dialogue, Lerman makes Charlie seem incredibly closed off yet strangely open and observant at the same time. He's a total introvert who's not yet discovered how that can work in his favor, but getting there. At first it seems he's just like any shy teen until it becomes obvious his problems run a lot deeper. It wouldn't be fair to call Sam an unrequited crush or necessarily just a friend. The relationship's kind of complicated, but the gist of it is that she's nonetheless such an important person in his life that it almost doesn't matter how it's defined. Having not seen any Harry Potter, this role really stands as my first extended exposure to Emma Watson, and while she sometimes slips in and out of her American accent, it's easy to see why everyone's so high on her. For the most part, she takes a well-traveled character type and makes it seem fresh and original with her poise and charm. The part of Sam also allows her to take something that's in short supply these days for younger actresses. A serious, yet somewhat lighthearted, age-appropriate role that's that's far removed from something like Twilight or The Hunger Games. It also seems Chbosky knew the already strong connection Watson had amongst young audiences who grew up watching her and didn't dare waste the opportunity to exploit that relationship to full effect.
It's Ezra Miller who, walks away with the film as Patrick, delivering a supporting performance that's both outlandishly goofy, funny and heartbreaking. What's amazing is how he so skillfully navigates the problems and pressures of this kid who so often uses a joking mask to hide the absolute hell he's going through as an openly gay teen in the early 90's. A scary scene late in the film exposes just how hard it must have been and how little protection and help there was. Those who were clamoring for a supporting nomination for Miller are justified as its easily the most memorable performance amongst a wide array of strong ones. The adults hardly have anything to do but it was nice for a change to see Charlie's parents depicted as supportive and receptive, if just slightly out of the loop for understandable reasons. It was even nicer to see the relationship between Charlie and her even more supportive sister (who has problems of her own) freed from the manufactured sibling conflict we get in these types of movies. Their few scenes together are kind of touching and if the relationship had been explored further, Nina Dobrev briefly gives the impression she would have been more than up for the task. With the exception of Arrested Development, Mae Whitman's screen presence can be irritating, but as Charlie's first sort-of-girlfriend, she's actually asked to play a character who's irritating, so therefore successfully is. If Paul Rudd spent the entire rest of his career reprising his role as English teacher Mr. Anderson I wouldn't complain since this, not the string of too similar feeling hit-or miss gross-out comedies, represents the kind of meaningful supporting work he should be taking more often. It's unlikely you'll watch without being reminded of your favorite teachers or how likable Rudd is in the right role. Freed from the shackles of having to carry a movie as lead and improve unfunny material, he's as subtly good here as he's been in a long time.
The movie takes a twist in the third act that's not entirely unexpected, but it nonetheless comes off as a gutsy turn into some darker territory for those unfamiliar with the source material. What's surprising is how capably Chbosky handles it since there's a lot going on at once, including a major reveal that could have easily seemed over-the-top or sensationalistic if not presented just right. The film is full of such choices. It doesn't even visually resemble a teen movie, shot by cinematographer Andrew Dunn in a much gloomier color palette than the cheery sitcom look so frequently prevalent in the genre. As expected, the soundtrack is basically a character unto itself with Chbosky making some inspired choices from what was definitely a fruitful period for music. Yes, we could have probably done without the Smiths making what seems like their hundredth soundtrack appearance on a depressed teen's mix tape, but it's tough to argue it doesn't fit in this case or that its placement isn't unusually restrained. The same goes for the interactive Rocky Horror Picture Show screening which, despite being far from restrained, is at least incorporated well into the story.
David Bowie's "Heroes," and the characters' discovery of it, also has a major role in the proceedings. While you could resonably claim these music savvy teens not knowing such a famous song (to the point they can't even name its title or artist), is a writing error on Chbosky's part, it's actually the exact opposite. While it's certainly now a classic rock staple, it wasn't in 1991 and it's not like you could have just "Googled" to find out what it was. As someone who didn't discover classic rock or knew which artists sang anything until college, them not knowing that song isn't far-fetched in the slightest. It's yet another tiny detail that makes perfect sense in a script smart enough to convey that teens sometimes think they know everything, when in fact they have a ridiculously long ways to go. The song's been used countless times in movies but it legitimately feels like we're hearing it for the first time because the characters are, allowing us to join in their excitement.
It's hard enough standing on the sidelines and watching someone else adapt your book or screenplay, making brutal cuts by excising entire scenes and storylines to make it "flow" better or feel more cinematic. Just ask Stephen King, who always seems have complaints whenever one of his novels are adapted for the screen, often blaming filmmakers for deviating from the source material or not being true enough to HIS vision. Maybe he should sit down with Chbosky, who so completely grasps that a book's a book and a movie's a movie. A novel's only job in this process is to provide the starting point or inspiration for the film and by objectively standing back, he was able to determine what would and wouldn't translate effectively to the screen. It's a major accomplishment when you consider he had to take an axe to his own writing while still retaining its essence.
Books and movies are two completely different animals but they join in an inspired way with this adaptation, thanks to its author, screenwriter and director. Never nosediving into easy sentimentality, this is a film that understands growing up and knows that things can get better and also much worse. It's also to imagine the movie without its signature voiceover narration, which here proves the power of that storytelling device if used well. The one used in the final sequence feels just perfect, capturing a time and a place where you just want to grab a fleeting moment and hold onto it as long as possible. But it'll pass. When the film ended, I couldn't stop thinking about what will happen to these characters when it does.