“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” doesn’t really feel like a teenage movie that’s aimed at a teenage audience. Set in the 1990s, it seems like a story that would resonate especially with slightly older people who have already gone through the sometimes thrilling, sometimes horrifying experiences of high school and can now look back upon it, from a distance, with fondness and chagrin in turn. And while it may not reflect exactly or realistically my personal high school experience, or yours, what it does do brilliantly is paint a robust and painfully honest picture of a cast of dynamic and memorable characters, who don’t fit in anywhere but with each other.
Stephen Chbosky not only wrote the cult favorite novel back in 1999, but he also adapted the screenplay and directed the movie himself. This could have been a recipe for disaster (or at least way too much self-indulgence), but instead, it seems Chbosky drew up a perfect visual highlight reel of his book, accessible to audiences who haven’t read it, and worthy of its die-hard fans. Chbosky is clearly at his best with a pen in hand, as the film is chock full of smart writing and quotable one-liners. Stories featuring teenagers who sound way too clever for their own good don’t always work, but Chbosky has sculpted his teenagers into such robust and full and real people that when, between long stretches of dialogue that ring incredibly true, they occasionally wax poetic about how “we accept the love we think we deserve,” it comes off as endearing rather than pandering.
The writer-director also assembled a top notch cast of rising young actors to bring his words and characters to life, though it’s true that some of these burgeoning movie stars appear a little too classically good looking to be believable as outcasts. But this is the movies, after all. For most of the movie, Logan Lerman has perhaps the hardest task, to play the straight man opposite a group of outrageous characters, led by Ezra Miller and “Harry Potter” graduate Emma Watson as step-siblings Patrick and Sam, who quickly take Lerman’s shy to the point of stoic Charlie under their wing. “Welcome to the island of misfit toys,” beautiful, outgoing senior Sam tells lowly freshman Charlie. Is it any wonder he falls head over heels for her immediately?
Watson is every bit the charming and broken dream girl befitting of someone as lonely as Lerman’s Charlie, and rather than stopping just there, she infuses Sam with true dimension and makes her a character to root for and feel empathy towards in her own right. Miller, likewise, is pitch perfect and especially memorable as the class clown unwittingly holding a dark secret. Like the rest of the misfit toys, these siblings don’t wear their scars on the surface, nor do they ever want to be viewed as victims. Instead, this tight knit group, that also includes Mae Whitman and Erin Wilhelmi, celebrate each other’s weirdness and revel in the miracle of finding each other. With his new group of friends, Lerman’s Charlie is finally content. So it’s not surprising that it’s when his new happy, hopeful life begins to unravel that Lerman gets his chance to truly shine, as Charlie’s own issues begin to surface with a vengeance in one of the most unnerving and emotional sections of the film.
Charlie and his friends, even if you or I never personally met people like them in high school, feel like real teenagers. The film doesn’t glorify their ups and downs, but gazes upon them with a protective and loving nostalgia. To Charlie, making and giving a mixtape to Sam is a huge deal that signifies his deepest and most secret desires, but audiences will just find it adorable. That’s not to say it’s all first loves, school dances and pop culture references for Chbosky’s kids (though there is plenty of that as well, naturally). Indeed, “Perks” packs in more Real Serious Issues than just about any other high school movie in recent memory: drug use, domestic and sexual abuse, suicide, sexuality, bullying, mental disorder, etc. all in addition to trying to do well enough on the SATs to get into the colleges of their choice. Despite all that, it never feels preachy, and it never feels forced. “Perks” will simultaneously make you long to be back in high school, and be especially grateful that you will never have to be again.