Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age novelette The Perks of Being a Wallflower was a huge hit when it was published in 1999, and the author received numerous offers to turn the book into a film. However, Chbosky held out because he wanted to direct the film himself, even though his experience was limited to a single little-seen indie comedy called The Four Corners of Nowhere. His movie adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower finally opened in a few local theaters last week and expands to more of them this week. Given that the result is one of the best teen flicks of the last decade, it all seems well worth the 13-year wait.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a high-school freshman from a devoutly Catholic family in Pittsburgh who is starting school in the early 1990s after a stay in a mental hospital. He’s resigned to life as a social outcast before a couple of misfit seniors take him in: sardonically funny, out-and-proud gay Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his beautiful, loyal, damaged stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). Introverted and lacking confidence, Charlie pens letters to an imaginary friend to try to make sense of things such as why his older sister (Nina Dobrev) sticks with a boyfriend who hits her and why Sam keeps choosing the wrong guys.
The movie is exceptionally well cast. You may have seen Lerman as the lead in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, though he was better showcased as Christian Bale’s son in 3:10 to Yuma. Charlie spends much of the movie trying to blend in with the background, which is hard for an actor to make interesting. The boyishly handsome Lerman does it by accentuating the character’s unease in social situations, frequently to good comic effect, as when he awkwardly sways trying to look cool on a dance floor or when he does a little boy’s goodbye wave to the girl he has just lost his virginity to. Lerman resists the urge to overact in an early scene when Charlie gets high. (Charlie’s so green, he doesn’t suspect anything’s up when the local stoner gives him a brownie.) His underplaying early on sets up his spectacular work later, when Charlie suffers a severe breakdown. The kid’s tenuous hold on himself gradually slips away despite his best efforts, and Lerman makes it deeply moving.
The high-powered supporting cast includes some fine work from Paul Rudd as a cool English teacher and, less expectedly, a funny and understated Dylan McDermott as Charlie’s dad. The real stellar turns, though, come from Miller and Watson. The tall, angular Miller (last seen playing the psychopathic killer in We Need to Talk About Kevin) brings oodles of bitchy energy and a keen sense of comic timing, but just as Patrick starts to come off as a clichéd sassy gay sidekick, his romance with a closeted football-star classmate (Johnny Simmons) publicly implodes. That’s when grief strips away Patrick’s brashly confident facade, and Miller renders his heartbreak in wrenching fashion.
No less impressive is Watson, who looks entirely comfortable playing a girl miles removed from Hermione Granger. An academic underachiever who’s desperate to put her hard-partying past behind her and get into college, Sam is gifted with a teasing sense of humor and cursed with low self-esteem, and Watson is by turns coolly luminescent and bursting with nervous energy. I went to school with a girl just like this, and Watson has the whole vibe down. (And the American accent, too.) Miller and Watson’s shared sense of fun makes them a killer team, especially during a rowdy and joyous scene when Patrick and Sam break out a choreographed routine at the homecoming dance. You believe that these siblings are best friends.
Chbosky prunes his novel into a tight script, and the sharpness of his comic dialogue prevents the movie’s pathos from overwhelming everything else. (Child abuse in various stripes runs rampant through this story.) Most importantly, he captures a teenager’s heightened sensibilities, using it not only to present us with Charlie’s adolescent view of the world but also to whip up some moments of intoxicating lyricism, as when Sam stands up in the back of her pickup truck while Patrick drives through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, blasting David Bowie’s “Heroes.” It’s one of those ineffable teenage moments when the whole world feels in tune with you. Witnessing this, Charlie says, “I feel infinite.” It’s all very emo, and, like the rest of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it feels quite true.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Starring Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, and Emma Watson. Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, based on his own novel. Rated PG-13.