Sunday, February 17, 2013
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) is a rare exception. Adapting his own popular young adult novel, Chbosky crafts a surprisingly affecting coming-of-age film. Sensitive storytelling and a likeable cast allow Wallflower to transcend teen movie status.
Lonely teen Charlie (Logan Lerman) starts high school carrying heavy emotional baggage: he recently lost his aunt (Melanie Lynskey) in a car accident, and his best friend committed suicide. Charlie struggles to get by until he befriends outsider seniors called the Wallflowers: girl-with-a-past Sam (Emma Watson), flamboyant Patrick (Ezra Wilson), manic Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) among them. Bonding over indie mix tapes and pot brownies, Charlie falls for Sam, dates Mary Elizabeth and helps Patrick get over a bad relationship. As the gang's graduation nears Charlie confronts hidden demons from his past.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower shows little promise early on. Chbosky hits many familiar notes: high school dances, bullying, drugs, inspirational teacher (Paul Rudd, toting Kerouac and Harper Lee like cure-alls), sexual awkwardness, unrequited love and David Bowie music. To be fair, few teen movies feature The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a plot point, and the cast generates great humor: Patrick's rivalry with a harsh shop teacher (Tom Savini) is a scream. But Wallflower's first hour feels disarmingly anodyne, pleasant but unremarkable.
Wallflower's greatest achievement comes in its detailed, relatable characters. Charlie blames himself for his aunt's death, his primary motivation fear of hurting friends and loved ones. Sam and Patrick fall dangerously close to stereotypes (Manic Pixie Dream Girl, perky gay friend) but each gets affecting development: Sam's desperation to reach college, Patrick's drunken breakdowns. The movie excises the book's most difficult material, including a harrowing subplot involving Charlie's sister (Nina Dobrev), but doesn't seem worse for its absence. There's an emotional truth here that's palpable, belying Wallflower's familiar packaging.
Chbosky proves an impressive first-time director. His moody photography and effective montage work commendably translates literary imagery into cinema. Scenes like the gang's midnight drives through the Ft. Pitt Tunnel and Charlie's fractured flashbacks feel effortlessly conveyed. Charlie's narration (to an invisible "friend") is used with sparing effectiveness. The soundtrack provides a familiar assortment of rock favorites: Bowie, The Beatles, Pavement and yes, The Smiths.
Logan Lerman shines in a breakout role. Unremarkable at best in 3:10 to Yuma, Percy Jackson and The Three Musketeers, Lerman handles a difficult character with commendable nuance. Emma Watson casts off her Harry Potter baggage, providing winsome charm and longing. Ezra Wilson mixes humor alongside scarce-hidden anguish. Mae Whitman and Johnny Simmons (The Conspirator) feature as other teens. The adult cast provides fine support: Paul Rudd's sensitive English teacher, Melanie Lynskey's (The Informant!) mysterious aunt and Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh's frazzled parents.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a wonderful movie. I haven't enjoyed a young adult flick this much since Adventureland, but even that film ultimately provided little beyond likeable characters. Wallflower achieves genuine depth, pathos and feeling: a real charmer.