The unbearably long gap between the November Oscar releases and the Christmas Oscar releases has driven me all the back to last September in the hunt for something decent to watch. My quarry: The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Based on his own novel of the same name, Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower may appear to be nothing more than a fairly typical high school movie, and the reason for that appearance is because... well, it is. But just because something isn't remarkable or revelatory, that doesn't mean it can't still move and captivate. This particular youth-oriented drama is a graceful montage of a year-in-the-life, steeped in all the agony and ecstasy that one year can bring, but told with the utmost tenderness.
Our story is set in suburban Pittsburgh in the early 1990s – a simpler time before every teenager had a cell phone to text with, and when your feelings toward another were best expressed through the songs you included on the mix tape you had made for them. High school freshman Charlie (beautifully interpreted by Logan Lerman) is quiet, passive, and scarred by tragic backstories that would drive any youngster to introversion. He is convinced that he needs to make some friends, and fast – someone other than his intellectually inspiring English teacher (Paul Rudd). Surprisingly, it's a pair of senior students who are the first to welcome Charlie into a social circle: Patrick (Ezra Miller), a giddily flamboyant class clown, and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson, stretching her acting legs), the radiant girl-next-door for whom Charlie develops immediate feelings. We follow them and their tightly knit clique on a roller-coaster year of dramatic highs and lows, as Charlie tries to overcome his demons and grow into something more than just a wallflower.
Literary adaptations can be a tricky business, especially for a sophomore feature filmmaker treating his own novel for the screen, but Chbosky proves that he has an intuitive grasp of the camera-as-narrator concept. Throughout the picture, what we see and don't see is filtered through the eyes of Charlie. His experience becomes our experience. Like a wallflower itself, the camera quietly observes the people and events that bloom before it. When Charlie re-experiences his traumatic episodes, the flashback images are spliced in a fragmented collage. When he first lays eyes on the desirable Sam, she is shot from a low angle and framed in angelic backlight; a closeup worthy of Ingrid Berman. Much of Chbosky's technique obeys convention, but its impossible to fault such an effectively understated translation of the written word into the language of visual storytelling.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is hardly a perfect film (as if such a thing exists), but even its flaws achieve an odd alchemy with the bigger picture. Cynics wouldn't be completely wrong in describing this high school soap opera as emotionally all over the map, but strangely enough, it's hard to think of a more appropriate depiction of our hormonally confused high school years. Skeptics may eagerly scoff at Emma Watson's well-intentioned effort, which still rings with a certain artificiality, but even that seems to be somehow in step with Chbosky's representation of Sam as an unattainable object on a pedestal, rather than a fully fledged character.
Her two costars, on the other hand, are unarguably great. Logan Lerman is a genuinely likable lead, finding layers of soft-spoken nuance to help evoke a messily complicated character, whose mental hangups don't exactly boil close to the surface. And Ezra Miller positively steals the show in a complete 180 from the fundamentally evil presence he carved in last year's We Need to Talk About Kevin. He ignites a much valued spark of glee in this otherwise dulcet film, but never undercuts his character's more serious dramatic beats.
Obviously, reactions to The Perks of Being a Wallflower depend on what the viewer brings to it, with the powers of nostalgia wielding more than just a little influence. Those old enough to lucidly remember the early 90s will appreciate the period details captured by cinematographer Andrew Dunn's dimly golden glow, as they will the film's soundtrack, which, much like the mix tapes Charlie so loving makes for his friends, is one kick-ass compilation album. The final passage of the film confesses that we all eventually grow up and forget what it was like when we were young, but that in that moment “we are infinite”. With its sincere crystallization what it feels like, The Perks of Being a Wallflower has made that moment infinite for us.
***1/2 out of ****