A film review by Craig J. Koban October31, 2012
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
2012, PG-13, 103 mins.
2012, PG-13, 103 mins.
Charlie: Logan Lerman /
Sam: Emma Watson /
Patrick: Ezra Miller /
Mom: Kate Walsh /
Dad: Dylan McDermott /
Aunt Helen: Melanie Lynskey /
Mr. Anderson: Paul Rudd /
Mary Elizabeth: Mae Whitman
I have seen countless teen-centric high school dramedies over the years, but THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER spoke to me in ways that many others have not.
The film is set
in the early 1990's and as a Gen-Xer that went to high school during the
same period, I was taken in with the its sensitive, but tough-minded and
unsentimental focus on the comings and goings of three teenage friends and
their warts and all existence in school.
There is an overarching sweep of genuineness and emotional honesty
to the material in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER that I’ve rarely
experienced before in these types of genre efforts; it also pitch
perfectly captures one undeniable fact of not only adolescent life, but of
life in general: we accept the love we think we deserve.
THE PERKS OF
BEING A WALLFLOWER is based on the 1999 semi-autobiographical novel of the
same name by Stephen Chbosky, and in a
highly rare move he was given the opportunity to not only adapt his own
literary work into a screenplay, but also has taken the reigns as director
for the film adaptation. This
alone is kind of a refreshing move on the studio’s part, seeing as so
many viewers over the years think that modern screenwriters are sometimes
out of touch with what made the novels they are appropriating for the big
screen tick. Chbosky’s
novel explored the unwavering anxiety and depression that befalls teens
when trying to fit in. It
also evoked how people on the outside of popular cliques often manage –
through no effort of their own – to discover friendship in unlikely
places. Beyond that, it also
tackled notions of sexual identity repression and mental illness.
This seems like a tall order for a high school dramedy, but Chbosky
has pulled it off rather flawlessly in his translation.
of course, much of the obligatory content of other high school films are
here – finding friendship, first crushes and first kisses, kind and
empathetic teachers, alcohol and drug-infused partying, painful
misunderstandings between friends that create emotional gulfs, etc. – but it’s
the manner that Chbosky delivers all the material that makes it feel fresh
and invigorating. In a suburb
of Pittsburgh in the early 90’s resides Charlie *(Logan Lerman), a high
school freshman and the “wallflower” of the film’s title.
He is about to make the scary transition from middle school to
high school, made all the more terrifying because he is regressively shy
and meek mannered. And he’s
unpopular…something that he constantly reminds himself of in the
film’s voiceover narration.
may have reasons for feeling downtrodden and anti-social: We learn (rather
quickly) that he once had a friend that took his own life a year earlier and he
has constant nightmarish flashbacks to his aunt, whom also was taken from
him on one particularly important day in his life.
When things go socially sour for Charlie, he mentally collapses
into flights of paranoia and unease, which consequently makes finding new
friends difficult. His first
days at school are almost traumatizing, that is until he is kindly
befriended by two step-siblings – Patrick (Erza Miller) and Sam (Emma
Watson) – who seem to be fully liberated spirits that take great solace
in not conforming to anything. Slowly
and surely, Charlie gains acceptance in their tight-knit circle of
eccentric friends, discovering the pleasures of David Bowie music and attending midnight screenings of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE
SHOW. Charlie, though,
can’t seem to let his dark past go, which always seems to threaten his
like the criminally underrated ADVENTURELAND,
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is a period-centric coming-of-age story
that deserves props for not succumbing to the usual genre conventions.
Chbosky lends a sensitive and observant eye when focusing on the
crushing awkwardness of Charlie trying to win over new friends, but he
also dives headfirst into more thorny and complicated thematic material
that would normally be excised from other films altogether.
There is a harsh and sometimes unsettling subplot involving Patrick
dating a closeted football star, which is kept in secret in fear of dire
repercussions from school peers and parental figures.
Then there’s the way Charlie’s mental illness is honed in on
with both understanding and keen observation, but the film never
completely paints Charlie as a black and white good/misunderstood kid.
He commits acts of cruelty towards his friends that are unsavory and has so much self-pity at times that you want to slap him.
trio of young performers here are absolutely stellar.
Lerman is an actor that I’ve never considered to be one of range
(films like PERCY JACKSON
AND THE LIGHTNING THIEF and THE
THREE MUSKETEERS have not help his cause), but I was amazed at his
career-defining performance here as Charlie.
Lerman has absconded away from his camera-mugging cockiness that
typified his past performances by capturing Charlie’s insecurities, his
disheartening past traumas, his mild mannered timidity, and his own
ungainly and introverted affability.
Some have complained that Lerman is perhaps to low key in the film
to make an impression, which misses the point: Charlie is a wallflower, hopeless outsider, and
is deeply unsure of himself.
Subtlety is the key here.
and Miller are standouts as well, especially Miller, who chilled us all to
the bone with his unnerving work as a troubled and disturbed teen in last
year’s WE NEED TO TALK
ABOUT KEVIN and now plays a completely different type of young man
in Patrick, a person that seems limitlessly confident and out-going while,
at the same time, hinting at his own deeply entrenched fears.
Watson, best know for her role in the HARRY POTTER films, may have
the trickiest assignment to tackle in Sam.
On paper, the role seems one-note and preordained (the flirtatious,
pretty, poised, but ultimately unconfident object of Charlie’s desires)
but she brings a sincerity and honesty to her part that allows Sam to feel
more fully formed. Her
tumultuous relationship with Charlie –bouncing around from friendship to
possible romantic intimacy – will make just about anyone in the audience
remember their first loves. Both
of them learn, though, that friendship is often more important that
looking for someone to date.
Oh…and a little bit of Paul Rudd goes an awfully long way too. He plays an English teacher and caring mentor figure to Charlie that inspires him to read classics and find his own literary voice (how nice is it to see high school teachers shown as good, nurturing, and compassionate figures in films like these?). I guess I found THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER so atypically refreshing in most regards; it’s not dime-a-dozen teen angst drivel, nor is it a squeaky clean portrayal of adolescent mental illness or emotional restlessness. Chbosky shows a remarkably assured hand at balancing all of the film’s themes of social introversion, identity crisis, and coming to grips with a damning past that always seems to hurt one in the present. This is a sad film too (many were balling in the audience), but not manipulative so. It’s also a film of joyous young passions for all things in life and, ultimately, optimism for the future. In the end, I was surprised by how much THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER moved me and the perks of seeing it are many.