The indie coming-of-age drama is a plague on the indie festival, and Stephen Chbosky‘s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the cure. In place of the quirky, self-centered protagonist is a lonely, scared individual who finds the courage to greet the world with wonder rather than malaise. In place of contrived conflict designed to occupy a sad and droll life, Perks tackles serious issues that would be difficult for anyone to face, let alone teenagers. Free from a twee character and a lazy script, actor Logan Lerman delivers a wonderful, eye-opening performance in Chbosky’s big-hearted and finely crafted adaptation of his 1999 novel.
Charlie (Lerman) has begun writing to an unknown recipient he calls “friend” as a way to cope with stress. He’s never been popular, he’s about to begin high school, he’s scared of returning to an emotional “bad place”. After a few rough weeks, Charile finds joyous step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), who become his best friends and open him up to a world that appreciates his personality and sweet naivety. The eponymous “Wallflower”, Charlie isn’t a loner, but an observer who is still learning his way and discovering the difficulty of coping with serious problems.
It’s a simple premise, and Chbosky doesn’t have the luxury of the charming epistolary device of his novel (although the letters still factor in as a means of narration). But Chbosky doesn’t need Charlie’s letters. The filmmaker has the beating emotional heart of the characters, and there’s not a single false moment in the film. Every character in Wallflower seems like a real human being rather than a jumble of neuroses and affectations. The teenagers in Wallflower were either you or someone you knew in high school. While we may cringe at the behavior of your high-school days, it doesn’t mean our feelings weren’t valid.
Chbosky perfectly balances the silliness of teenagers and the seriousness of their situations. His writing is never insulting. When we see Charlie, Sam, and Patrick’s friend Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) rambling non-stop on the phone to the point where Charlie can put down the handset, walk away for little bit, and then return without her noticing, it’s not to diminish Mary Elizabeth. She’s just self-involved and insecure. You know, like a teenager. Chbosky doesn’t think his characters are stupid. He respects that they think they know everything, and that respect makes it possible for him to give them a problem that shows his characters how little they really know. There’s nothing inflated or superficial about what Charlie, Patrick, and Sam face over the course of the story. Their problems are ones that would force an adult to struggle, and those problems are amplified when a person lacks the emotional vocabulary to fully comprehend their situation.
Chbosky has done a remarkable job streamlining his own novel, paring it down to its essential elements, and then providing a visual style that lets you know how long he’s had this movie mapped out in his mind. It’s not a flashy picture, but it’s not stagey, and it’s particularly impressive considering this is Chbosky’s directorial debut. Furthermore, he has done an exemplary job casting his movie. I was left cold by Logan Lerman’s performances in Percy Jackson and The Three Musketeers, but he absolutely shines in Perks. He plays Charlie with total vulnerability, which helps to put the audience in the shoes of his friends and family. We want to protect him because he’s too sweet and earnest for this world, and we want to preserve his uninhibited kindness before he’s devoured by cynicism. Miller may have the flashiest performance as the comic-relief who’s also dealing with a closeted boyfriend, but this is Lerman’s show, and it makes me excited to see what he’s capable of when paired with a smart script.
Several weeks ago, I read Perks of Being a Wallflower, and I think I would have loved it if I had read it when I was fifteen. As an adult, I can pick out some of the excesses like how every single character is dealing with some kind of major abuse or trauma, but I can’t dismiss the novel’s loving sympathy towards its characters. Through skillful direction, casting, scaling back the number of character arcs, and understanding what wouldn’t translate to the screen, Stephen Chbosky has made his film surpass his novel. He’s also discovered the cure for the common, crummy coming-of-age story.
Rating: 8.7 out of 10
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