Rueful, touching, and filled with melancholic flourishes, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a likable, unsurprising, affection-hooking coming-of-age story and a stimulating showcase for its pretty young cast.
Based on his critically-acclaimed novel, Stephen Chbosky makes an oft-attempted yet ill-advised jump from literature to filmmaking, transposing the book’s most important strengths: honesty, humor, sincerity, and nostalgia. A mash-up of Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby (though never approaching the refined merit of Salinger or Fitzgerald), The Perks of Being a Wallflower has been translated into 31 languages, and its central character – the introverted outcast-student Charlie – has enjoyed considerably wide appeal.
As Charlie, Logan Lerman (3:10 to Yuma) is shy and transparent, longing for kinship and finally discovering it in the step-sibling duo of Sam (Emma Watson, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) and Patrick (the charismatic Ezra Miller). Watson serves as a darling obsession: lovely, fragile, quirky, and bold. Predictably powerful and plausible is Miller as Charlie’s witty, gay confidante, playing an inverse complement to his previous role as the reserved, troubled school shooter in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.
A winsome group of supporters, including Paul Rudd as Charlie’s kind English teacher, Nina Dobrev as his beautiful older sister, and Dylan McDermott as his wise-cracking father, rounds out a funny, modest, and charming arc towards truthful contemplation. When Sam explains, “I want them to like the real me,” it somehow strikes the ear not as trite, but as sweet, empathetic, and smartly observed.
Structurally messy but emotionally effective, Chbosky’s screenplay is heartfelt, sad, vivid, and occasionally quite profound: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Slowly, Perks becomes an earnest, big-hearted ode to growing up; an angst-filled brew of tender kisses, unrequited crushes, and awkward dances. It flutters with the thrill and terror of being young and stumbling as you find your way.
Chbosky’s debut is filled with the kinks of a first-time director that has never worked on set. The narrative is sanitized and admittedly formulaic, and it can be tough to embrace characters that don’t know of David Bowie. Yet candid feeling and acting talent contribute to an atmosphere that is natural and instantly relatable. Audiences will recall with fondness the days when mix tapes did heavy lifting as calling cards, and all it took was the perfect song to put the world right.
High school is an ordeal only the fittest can survive. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is so assuring, so sympathetic through its protagonist’s voice, so optimistic in its portrayal of the promise and possibility of adolescence, that it envelops you in comfort, warmth, and understanding. And in that moment, I swear, you feel infinite.