Writer-director Stephen Chbosky brings his own coming-of-age novel to the screen in this multilayered comedy-drama that is a joy from beginning to end.
Stephen Chbosky adapts his own novel for the silver screen, casting Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller in the principle roles. Published in 1999, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which comprises a series of letters written by an introverted teenager, works beautifully in narrative film form. Chbosky manages to balance a number of subplots amidst the overarching theme of identity into an affectionate, moving and funny comedy-drama.
Charlie (Logan Lerman) begins his freshman year in high school as a loner and struggles to make friends. Despite enjoying a conventionally happy and secure middle-class family life with loving parents, he bottles up a childhood trauma, repressing a part of his life he’d rather forget. At first, he only allows his emotions to spill out on the pages of the letters he writes to an anonymous friend. His academic proficiency, particularly his grasp of literature, brings him to the attention of English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) who encourages Charlie to participate more in class and come out of his shell.
The teenager sees his English teacher as a source of inspiration but realises befriending him will only fuel the fires in the bullies that hate the bookworm. Charlie therefore gravitates towards class clown Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his attractive stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). These free-spirited seniors aren’t as distrustful towards the quiet, shy loner as the “cool kids”, introducing him to their fringe society of social misfits. Charlie’s winning personality begins to seep through the façade he had created for himself. We begin to learn of a childhood tragedy that continues to bubble beneath the surface, threatening to derail Charlie at any time, his repression of those events the principle cause of his social dysfunction. However, his new friends’ zest for life allows him to finally begin living his own.
“Some of my favourite scenes glimpse at Charlie’s lowering guard – the shoulder twitches as he makes his way to the dance floor having watched Patrick and Sam flaunt their stuff to Come on Eileen, and the attentive gaze as he watches Sam car-surf while listening to Bowie’s Heroes for the very first time.”
The Perks of Being a Wallflower might tread familiar ground, once the hunting arena of John Hughes and Savage Steve Holland during the eighties, but does so with such wonderful whimsy you can’t help but fall for its charm. Indeed, set during the very decade the teen coming-of-age drama enjoyed its heyday with the likes of The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me, Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Pretty In Pink, Chbosky’s film could be perceived as a throwback; a fanciful reminder of what went before. Yet, amidst the indie rock tunes of The Smiths and David Bowie, the film’s themes are as fresh today as they would be if released thirty years ago. The playing field might have altered with new technology, social media and better dress sense but high school is the same jungle-with-teeth Ferris Bueller was so eager to escape from.
Chbosky’s window onto this world of jocks, princesses, nerds and basket-cases falls mainly in the latter category. Indeed, Emma Watson’s short, cropped hair, particularly during some of her contemplative mid-shots, reminded me of Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. It is in this high school fringe society where alternative forms of expression are a prerequisite for inclusion (exampled through their re-enactment of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for an excitable, local theatre crowd); where social non-conformity is the new conformity, where being different isn’t frowned upon, it’s encouraged. For example, Patrick, who takes Charlie under his wing, is out of the closet but his boyfriend, a high school football player remains locked away. Charlie is at first surprised to see the popular teen arriving at the misfits’ party only to discover his secret. It is here, concealed away from the school halls, that this young man can live his life the way he wants to.
For Charlie, expressing himself is even harder. Hampered by a past event we are shown mere glimpses of, his inward personality is inspired to flourish through Sam and Patrick. Their carefree attitude refuses to allow society to define them, a trait that allows Charlie to stop thinking he has to pander to the “loner” label. He no longer must castrate enjoyment from life to serve the prejudices of his classmates. Some of my favourite scenes glimpse at Charlie’s lowering guard – the shoulder twitches as he makes his way to the dance floor having watched Patrick and Sam flaunt their stuff to Come on Eileen, and the attentive gaze as he watches Sam car-surf while listening to Bowie’s Heroes for the very first time.
In both instances music forms a key part. Chbosky’s play list consists of the sorts of artists that, like the characters that fall under their spell, drift on the extremities of mainstream pop culture. The likes of The Smiths, New Order, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, XTC and David Bowie provide the soundtrack to these teenagers’ lives. The writer-director uses music with the grace of someone who clearly loves Morrissey quietly screaming his pain in Asleep just as much as his characters. The theme of passing mix tapes between friends to convey a message – breaking up songs or conversely tracks to say I love you, for example – hugs the heart with warm nostalgia; a long lost art of communication killed by the digital age.
“There’s a naturalness to both the script and the performances that nuzzles warmly against the heart while Chbosky and his characters often get lost in the moment inducing a smile that’s difficult to remove.”
But Chbosky doesn’t lament on a time gone by. This story is about living for the moment, not in the past and despite the film’s period setting (sometime in the late 1980s) its central themes of high school life, friendship, growing up and first kisses rings just as true in the 2010s. Most importantly, the writer-director delivers that message with intelligence; treating his audience with respect. We’re not naïve souls awaiting boy meets girl and expecting the inevitable, we’re given multi-layered characters whose pitfalls and turmoil guarantees an indeterminate future in a world that isn’t perfect.
Justifying Chbosky’s obvious passion for the project are three terrific performances aiding his intent. Lerman, playing Charlie, has to bring out the likable qualities of a teen with serious mental trauma and does so admirably. Emma Watson has to relinquish her grasp on the character everyone knows her for in Harry Potter to bring Sam to life. Her gregarious high school senior couldn’t be further from Hermione Granger if she tried – a promiscuous past, indifferent grades and American accent. Don’t worry about the fact she’s playing an American, her accent never wavers – I’m not sure what part of America she’s supposed to be from but it sounded fine to me. Then, of course, there’s Ezra Miller who turned heads for his performance as a psychotic teenage killer in We Need To Talk About Kevin in 2011. There he brought us to tears for all the wrong reasons, here he does the exact opposite. He’s this beacon of vitality, guiding Charlie out of doldrums despite his own inner conflict.
That isn’t to say the film is perfect. Paul Rudd’s English teacher is under-used and underwritten while the film’s well-worn journey taken by so many teens coming of age will undoubtedly disappoint those expecting something more unique. I also had trouble with a critical scene in the middle of the film involving Patrick’s tough-guy bullies. He tries to stand up for himself in the face of the high school “jocks” and begins to take a hefty beating in front of a baiting cafeteria crowd. Charlie oversees the fight take place and blacks out, awaking to find he’s humbled the bullies and seemingly floored them all with a flurry of punches. The scene proves pivotal in the ongoing relationship he has with both Patrick and Sam but didn’t fit snugly on the shoulders of his character. It lacked credibility, briefly undermining a story that otherwise steers clear of manipulating through maudlin dramatics.
Ultimately, Chbosky does a fine job of adapting his own novel for the screen. The intimate tragedies of its three principle characters gives gravitas to their stories while underlining the very fabric their friendship is built upon. There’s a naturalness to both the script and the performances that nuzzles warmly against the heart while Chbosky and his characters often get lost in the moment inducing a smile that’s difficult to remove. In other words, in an imperfect world, these instances of pure joy are even more satisfying. If these are the perks of being a wallflower, count me in; the only thing I insist upon is you leave Bowie’s Heroes playing in the background.