Perks of Being a Wallflower, The (United States, 2012)

September 19, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Poster

Most of us, even some who were part of the "in crowd," think of ourselves as having been outsiders during high school. It's the nature of adolescence. Movies like Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower capture the awkwardness, the loneliness, and the unusual fellowship that accompany being on the outside looking in. As the film expresses, it's not necessarily a bad place to be... it's just different. This is not, of course, the first motion picture to explore this coming-of-age facet; in fact, the subgenre has become quite popular as those who grew up during the '80s and the '90s became filmmakers and used aspects of their own life stories. But The Perks of Being a Wallflower tweaks the formula just enough to remain fresh and offer something a little new. It's sad, funny, warm, and nostalgic - kind of like high school, really.

No one, especially not Stephen Chbosky, can claim that the movie is not a faithful translation of the book. Chobosky wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He has the sole screenplay credit for the adaptation, and he is the director. The movie might have benefitted from a little judicious trimming here and there - some subplots feel superfluous and are not well developed. (Example: the main character's sister's relationship with her boyfriend.) But there's nothing glaring and the central story - that of the titular wallflower, Charlie (Logan Lerman) - is presented with great heart and insight.

Although the epistolary nature of the book is largely abandoned, Chbosky pays homage to it by beginning and ending the movie with voiceovers taken from the "Dear Friend" letters written by Charlie. For the most part, however, The Perks of Being a Wallflower unfolds in a traditional, chronological fashion. As in the book, there are numerous cultural references. Charlie's English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), provides him with a seemingly-endless list of "outside reading" options. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has a major role in Charlie's development. And there's plenty of music from the '80s and early '90s. "Come on Eileen" and David Bowie's "Heroes" end up in the spotlight.

The events of The Perks of Being a Wallflower transpire over the course of one school year during the early 1990s in a Pittsburgh-area suburb. For Charlie, the transition from middle school to high school is terrifying, but it's also an opportunity for a new beginning. But, as a small fish transitioning from a small pool to larger one, he soon learns that not much changes. Once an outsider, always an outsider. The good thing is, he's not the only outsider. It doesn't take long before he has been befriended by two seniors - step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) - who revel in their nonconformist stature. Eventually, Charlie becomes an accepted member of their circle and even begins dating the talkative Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman). But there's something dark lurking in the back of Charlie's mind and, when things start going poorly, he begins to lose his composure as his life spirals out of control.

A lot of what's in The Perks of Being a Wallflower may seem familiar, although not in a bad way. All that means is that the movie taps into the essence of what high school feels like to those who exist on the fringes of what is typically considered "mainstream." The Perks of Being a Wallflower recalls dozens of high school movies from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Lucas to The Breakfast Club to Mean Girls and so on... For me, the strongest association was with Adventureland, which offers a similar dynamic between the main boy and girl. However, by taking a dark turn in its last act, The Perks of Being a Wallflower separates itself from the pack. Although the groundwork for what happens is established, it's possible to argue whether this is an effective trajectory for the narrative to pursue. It feels a little rushed and is placed more like an epilogue than an integral part of the story, happening as it does after most of the plot threads are resolved. Still, there's an element of daring to this and it takes The Perks of Being a Wallflower in a surprising direction.

Like her Harry Potter co-stars, Emma Watson is doing her best to distance herself from the role she played for most of her formative years. Watching her performance as Sam, we're never reminded of Hermione and she is given an opportunity to show more range and ability than was ever the case while strapped into a part where minimal latitude was allowed. She occasionally upstages Logan Lerman, who is not as well-known, but that's intentional. Sam is a star and Charlie is trapped in her orbit. Watson and Lerman share some nice scenes and their chemistry is effective. Ezra Miller, who gave a memorably chilling portrayal in We Need to Talk about Kevin, displays impressive range by inhabiting a character who is nothing like Kevin. Meanwhile, as is often the case in teen-oriented movies, a few recognizable names are brought in to play the adults: Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott, Joan Cusack. Only Rudd, as the English teacher we all wish we had been blessed with, leaves an impression.

Fans of the book should be pleased with how the cinematic translation has fared. Under Chbosky's firm, competent direction, it retains the written version's strengths while not falling into the category of being slavishly faithful. Those who have never heard of The Perks of Being a Wallflower will find this a pleasant experience, and it will be especially meaningful to those who attended high school in the '80s and '90s. It's an intelligent and emotionally resonant look at a period of life about which many of us have selective memories. Seeing it through the eyes of someone else reminds us of how universal some personal experiences can be.

Perks of Being a Wallflower, The (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2012-09-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Drugs, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1