The Perks of Being a Wallflower, now in limited release from Summit Entertainment but gradually expanding, is the freshest and most heartfelt teen-angst tale to come along since Easy A two years ago. Written and directed by first-timer Stephen Chbosky, adapting his semi-autobiographical book, the film is set in the 1990’s but has much more in common with the 1980’s in terms of style and content.
Chbosky employs the comedic-dramatic tightrope frequently walked by the late John Hughes in such mid-80’s, adolescent-skewing classics as The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink, as well as an arsenal of me-decade tunes by such singers as David Bowie, The Smiths, Morrissey and, naturally, Dexys Midnight Runners. The hairstyles are big, the wireless phones even bigger, and mix tapes remain the most indirect yet personal way to say “I love you.”
Cute Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson & the Olympians) grounds the movie as Charlie, a lonely teen with a troubled but nebulous past who is just starting his freshman year at a suburban Pittsburgh high school. Anxious to make friends, Charlie ingratiates himself to two seniors: the pretty but insecure Sam (the Harry Potter series’ Hermione, Emma Watson, who has matured beautifully as both a woman and an actress) and her stepbrother Patrick (Ezra Miller, proving that his frighteningly-impressive turn as the murderous son in last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was no fluke). Patrick is not only gay but, as Charlie discovers, is having a secret affair with a closeted member of their school’s football team.
The trio and their extended circle of friends consider themselves outcasts and “wallflowers.” As the school year moves along, Charlie finds the inspiration to become a writer through both the encouragement of his English teacher (a nice turn by Paul Rudd) and his growing attraction to Sam. He also assists the discouraged, self-doubting Sam in her efforts to be accepted into Penn State, and becomes an unexpected hero when he saves Patrick from a lunchroom gay-bashing. In the movie’s most personally-nostalgic moments, Charlie & Co. delightedly re-enact The Rocky Horror Picture Show before packed midnight audiences.
Alas, just when things seem to be going so well for Charlie, dark memories and physical blackouts start becoming more frequent. There’s a lingering mystery throughout the film involving Charlie’s favorite aunt (played in flashbacks by Melanie Lynskey, of Heavenly Creatures fame, who currently gives an acclaimed performance in Hello I Must Be Going) that gets resolved during the final 20 minutes thanks to Joan Cusack as a kindly counselor. After the emotional honesty of the previous 90 minutes, I found this climax not only predictable but handled unrealistically. (An example of the latter: Cusack reveals the painful, would-be shocking truth behind Charlie’s issues to his parents in the middle of a public hospital corridor rather than a private office.)
As much I was disappointed by the final act of The Perks of Being a Wallflower after being consistently impressed for such a prolonged period of time, I still recommend it most heartily. Chbosky directs with sensitive confidence and wrings impressive work out of his young leads. Not everyone will figure out the cause of Charlie’s scars in advance and some viewers who endured similar, real-life circumstances have reportedly been quite moved. The film is shaping up to be a cross-generational crowdpleaser, which was evident during the nearly full Sunday matinee I attended. For those of us who came of age in the 1980’s-early 90’s, though, it rings especially true.
Reverend’s Rating: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.