The Perks of Being a Wallflower | Film reviews, news & interviews
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Emma Watson shines in Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his own painful coming-of-age novel
Teenage angst is a tough thing to get right on screen. It's perenially popular territory for dramatic writers in part because of the heightened emotions it allows for – as Joss Whedon once phrased it in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a series which was in itself an extended metaphor for the horrors of high school, "everything feels like life or death when you're 16 years old."
But push that inevitably narcissistic young worldview too far, and and your audience will be alienated, regardless of how appealing your performers are. Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his own late Nineties novel sidesteps every tonal pitfall imaginable, without avoiding for a moment the conventions of its genre. This is a coming-of-age story through and through, and while it's several shades darker and perhaps more truthful in places than the average, it succeeds most of all as a stellar example of a familiar archetype.
Crucial to Perks' charm is the fact that these teenagers have actual problems, and seem to be doing their best to get on with life in spite of them, rather than self-indulgently wallowing in their own victimhood. Our hero Charlie (Logan Lerman, last seen in Paul W.S. Anderson's genuinely horrifying The Three Musketeers) is starting high school alone, following the violent suicide of his best friend. He's introverted to the point of turning himself inside out, physically and emotionally shrinking away from a world that has become, suddenly, very frightening.
Enter offbeat, self-possesed seniors Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), who take Charlie under their combined wing and introduce him both into their social circle of poised quasi-outcasts, and into a version of the real world that feels welcoming, rather than hostile. For all their worldliness, both have their own quiet crosses to bear: Sam seems haunted by a mysterious chequered past, while Patrick's involved in a fraught relationshp with closeted quarterback Brad (Johnny Simmons).
It's no surprise that Chbosky translates his own prose to the screen faithfully – even the epistolary structure is retained partially through voiceover – but as a first-time director, he also demonstrates an impressive level of visual confidence and dexterity with actors. All three of his leads are firing on the same naturalistic, endearingly understated cylinders, and all three surprise for different reasons.
Lerman, in large part thanks to below-par material, has never been an actor who suggested much depth, but here he conveys a nuanced mix of naïveté and profound pain. In her role as Hermione in the Harry Potter series, Watson always had the sense of someone performing in a school play, all stiff flourishes and over-enunciated syllables, and she too comes off well here. It is the case though that her character feels less inhabited, and less psychologically whole, than the two leading men, perhaps thanks to the "unattainable girl" role she takes on in Charlie's eyes.
Miller, on the other hand, was so startlingly good in his last turn – as the eponymous demon child in Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin – that it was nigh-on impossible to imagine him ever shaking off that sinister mantle. Yet Patrick as a character wears his heart on his sleeve, defined by his flamboyant generosity of spirit, and Miller could not be more intensely lovable in the role.
Chbosky's self-contained teenage world isn't without its oddities. Parents are entirely peripheral here to an extent that at times feels odd, but this is another example of the teenage worldview made flesh. Similarly there are Moments with a capital M here, Moments that involve driving through tunnels and feeling infinite and looking up at stars, but they're played so earnestly and with such vigour that you go with the emotion, even as you acknowledge the essential cheese factor. Perks hits on a kind of universal nostalgia for the teenage years – for a time when every moment felt life-altering – without blunting the sharp, dark edges it simultaneously imparts.
Watch the trailer to The Perks of Being a Wallflower
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