Director: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller
“I didn’t think anyone noticed me.” It’s a statement that could apply to the premise of virtually every film about alienated teenagers, but which applies particularly well to The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The film, directed and adapted by Stephen Chbosky from his novel of the same name, has a degree of sincerity and gentleness that few films about teenagers can boast, achieving it without dipping too far into sentimentality. It’s a beautifully made movie that gets to the heart of the matter without condescension, and which features a trio of fine performances at its centre.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows a year in the school life of Charlie (Logan Lerman). It’s his first year of high school and he greets it with anxiety about what the transition will bring, anticipating that he will continue to be as isolated and lonely as he has been up until this point. Although it seems at first that this might be the case, he finds himself befriended by two seniors – Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) – who take him under their wing and include him within their group of friends. He quickly develops a crush on Sam, though he doesn’t pursue anything more than friendship out of the knowledge that she has a college-age boyfriend, and from a sense he has that she wouldn’t want him to try for more with her.
Though he continues to pine for Sam throughout the year, he finds himself, to his utter bafflement, dating Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), another girl in the circle of friends. He has no real interest in dating Mary Elizabeth but doesn’t want to hurt her feelings by telling her as much and doesn’t really understand that he’s actually allowed to break up with her. This eventually leads to the relationship coming to an end in the worst possible way (no good ever came from Truth or Dare), and Charlie being temporarily exiled from the group. Although Charlie seems like a fragile, harmless sort, there is a great deal of darkness in his life. Cut off from friendship after finally feeling as though he’d found people with whom he belonged, that darkness begins to take hold of him again, revealing deep cracks in his psyche.
The film is shaped by a framing device that involves Charlie writing about his experiences to an unnamed person whom he doesn’t really know, but feels would understand. Narration in films is often a tricky business because sometimes it plays as if a filmmaker isn’t confident enough in his or her ability to express the film’s themes that they need the added assurance of a character spelling everything out. Perks doesn’t totally succeed in sidestepping that problem, but for the most part the narration is pretty unobtrusive and the film does a fine job at expressing the angst and growing pains of its characters without it.
The trio of Lerman, Watson and Miller equip themselves well as characters who are, each of them, broken in different ways. Charlie’s troubles are obviously at the forefront since it’s his story, and Lerman does an excellent job carrying the film, bringing a deft mix of hope and pain to his portrayal of Charlie. Watson, meanwhile, plays a character with a history of being mistreated by both boys and men, and Miller plays a young man who is openly gay himself, but forced to keep his relationship with a member of the football team a secret. There are parallels in the experiences of all three, and the three actors bring a great deal of depth to their characters and to their relationships to each other. Given her performance here, I think it’s safe to say that the rest of Watson’s career will not be overshadowed by the legacy of Harry Potter, and Miller confirms, after his strong performance in last year’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, that he’s an actor to watch out for.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a very good film. I don't know that it will necessarily join the pantheon of "definitive" movies about teenage life, but it is certainly an uncommonly intelligent and sensitive film about a demographic that, more often than not, Hollywood deems necessary to talk down to rather than engage directly.