Back when I graduated high school, there was something that irked my fast-emerging inner film snob. Much as I was enjoying discovering Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa, there wasn’t really anything I could relate to in their movies. I was not (and still am not, I’m pretty sure) a depressed Swede questioning his belief in God, nor a falsely accused businessman having an affair with an ice-cool blonde, nor a samurai. I was just a kid in his late teens, a period of adolescence that has sunk many a well-intentioned filmmaker. Sure, there are plenty of great high school movies out there: “The Breakfast Club,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Rushmore,” “Brick,” to name a few – but all of them were too dated, too quirky, too mannered to really resemble the high school experience that I recognized, and was still trying to process. For a while I toyed with the idea of just writing the Great American Teen Movie myself.
That’s probably too grandiose a title to attach to “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” but dammit, it pretty much is exactly what I wanted to make. Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky (based on his own best-selling novel), “Perks” does a wonderful job of capturing high school in its entirety: rather than focusing on the madcap humor or the desperately awkward process of maturity, Chbosky throws it all together into one great confused jumble. After all, isn’t that what adolescence really is – a giant confused hurricane of emotions, which are often indistinguishably positive or negative but indiscriminately strong.
At the eye of this particular storm is Charlie (Logan Lerman), a slightly dorky and shy freshman. It’s obvious that Charlie is in some way damaged – in the surprisingly unobtrusive narration, he makes oblique references to a previous mental breakdown and possible hallucinations – but the source of his issues is not immediately apparent. That he is obviously bright, observant, and a perfectly pleasant conversationalist makes his isolation at school all the more distressing; it doesn’t seem to be his character that has shunted him aside, but circumstance.
Which makes it all the more fitting, of course, that an equal spasm of chance ends up nudging his life back in the opposite direction. While attending one of the school’s football games, Charlie works up some nerve and sits next to Patrick (Ezra Miller), a friendly, outgoing senior from his shop class. That Charlie even bothered to go to a football game by himself is a rather pitiful cry for help, and Patrick, clearly savvy at picking up hidden signals, takes this lonely kid under his wing without a thought. Miller, who was previously seen as Tilda Swinton’s disturbed, anti-social son in Lynne Ramsey’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” could hardly be playing a more different role.
Charlie is then introduced to Patrick’s half-sister Sam (Emma Watson), and we can immediately see the usual romantic machinations starting to grind. But Chbosky recognizes that unrequited crushes are simultaneously the easiest to spot and the easiest to ignore; abstract adoration is not something teenagers are really equipped to handle, which is unfortunate considering they’re also the most prone to fall under its spell. Charlie and Sam dance around each other, but there’s no great, cathartic consummation of Charlie’s desire; how can there be, when what he’s in love with is as much an idea as a girl.
It’s that swirling sense of self-definition, of the attempt to make something out of concrete out of a lot of feelings and wishes and thoughts, that “Perks” nails. There’s a running motif of mix tapes and music throughout the film, which is a cliché of teen movies, but Chbosky gets the kernel of truth behind it: music is often our first encounter with what I call the “History Boys” moment, those times when you find a piece of art that expresses a thought or idea you had previously considered totally unique to yourself. Charlie listens to The Smiths and attends screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and avidly consumes every book given to him by his friendly English teacher (Paul Rudd); Sam says it’s because he has good taste, but it’s more that he has an overwhelming urge to figure out who he is.
It’s an urge that Charlie shares with the audience, and Chbosky very methodically doles out crucial pieces of information about his protagonist to slowly reveal a history of trauma. This is possibly where “Perks” suffers the most – by handing a litany of past suffering to not only Charlie, but Patrick and Sam as well, Chbosky risks alienating much of the audience by implying that social outcast status goes hand-in-hand with abuse.
Luckily, the acting ensemble is universally grounded and believable, keeping “Perks” from careening off into after-school special territory. Miller’s the stand-out, putting up a grand, hilarious facade with just a few heart-breaking moments of pain leaking through – but Lerman is also a big surprise. Nothing in “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” could prepare him for the emotional heavy-lifting here, but he navigates everything from nervous breakdowns to the requisite “first time getting high” scene nimbly. Watson is serviceable, but does little to indicate that she’s learned anything from all those British acting legends in the Harry Potter series. Meanwhile, Mae Whitman (her?) is wonderful as a second, undesired romantic option for Charlie, and I’m not sure what pheromone Paul Rudd exudes that always makes you want to be his best friend, but there it is.
High school is a very strange time. Every little conflict seems so drastically important, yet so often those “deep” grudges and hopeless crushes can disappear in a couple weeks. We inevitably look back on these experiences as funny stories, but in the moment they can feel so crushingly real. You don’t necessarily need friends in order to make it through the madness, but boy it makes it easier when there’s someone you can go off the leash with. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” like “ParaNorman” a while back, is fundamentally optimistic about adolescence, and a great film to let contemporary teenagers know that, even when it comes to characters up on the silver screen, they are not alone.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars