REVIEW: The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2012]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 102 minutes | Release Date: September 21st, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Director(s): Stephen Chbosky
Writer(s): Stephen Chbosky / Stephen Chbosky (novel)

“We are infinite”

Adolescent tomes depicting the trials and tribulations of high school are many; the ones infused with psychological trauma and bouts of depression their majority. But while most find the need to talk down to audiences by over saturating themselves in comedic anecdotes rather than humanity, it’s the rare instance of authenticity that speaks to you. It’s not because you too were damaged and friendless, but merely because you understand. We’ve all coped with the struggle of starting fresh at a new school with a foreign curriculum, acquaintances turned into strangers, and the dread of forever being alone. It only takes one kind soul stretching out a hand of compassionate empathy to let you know things get better. The insecurity is universal as life always holds endless possibilities.

This is the rarified air Stephen Chbosky‘s epistolary coming-of-age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower exists in and he has successfully transferred it to screen. Seventeen years after his first film, it’s only fitting he received the chance to carry his semi-autobiographical work through its full gestation period. Dripping with character nuance, the story fearlessly treads into controversial waters of unbridled sexuality, physical and emotional abuse, psychological torment, and the bumps and bruises inherent to growing up. Despite all its generalizations, though, there is a stunning level of realism at play in its depiction of 1977 youth culture and its rising tide of enlightenment through intellectual discourse and recreational drug use. And its universality speaks volumes.

Centering on Charlie (Logan Lerman), we enter a new school year through freshman eyes. Trepidatious courtesy of a rather infamous past of blackouts and hallucinations stemming from the tragic death of his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey) and suicide of his best and only friend, Charlie works hard to stay out of his head. Making friends becomes a bit of an afterthought, his social standing intrinsically labeling him a pariah supplying little help. Mocked by the vicious class valedictorian; shunned by sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) and her boyfriend Ponytail Derek (Nicholas Braun), both seniors; and only relating to his English teacher Mr. Anderson (a wonderfully subtle Paul Rudd) through borrowed paperback classics, the silence his room provides for reading or writing therapeutic letters to an anonymous ‘friend’ becomes his only sanctuary.

When the isolation boils over and the fear of spiraling back into depression looms large, an opportunity arises. Cheering wildly during a sold out football game amidst constant name-calling courtesy of a backfired jab at his technology teacher, senior wild card Patrick (Ezra Miller) appears just crazy enough to not rebuke a freshman for saying hello. Slyly smiling with a, “You’re in my shop class, aren’t you?” the class clown readily lets Charlie in his row. Fast-forward a couple minutes and the beautiful Sam (Emma Watson) arrives to fully sandwich the newcomer and change his life forever. If the 70s had hipsters, these two humble elitists of arts and culture would be the poster children for the movement. And despite their clique in their last year, Charlie is welcomed with open arms.

This is the beginning of a cycle of ups and downs as the Wallflower group slowly peels back layers of their checkered pasts rivaling our narrator’s. There’s the reformed slut (Sam), the non-conformist (Mae Whitman‘s Mary Elizabeth), the closeted football star (Johnny Simmons‘ Brad), and the vulnerable outsider over-compensating with a façade of cool ambivalence and strength (Patrick). They listen to The Smiths, Dexys Midnight Runners (a possible continuity error if it’s to be believed David Bowie‘s “Heroes” had just been released since “Come On Eileen” dropped in 1982), and other New Wave bands as they attend dances and parties with a cultivated indifference of being too cool to go for actual fun. These are my kind of kids.

But while the fun and excitement of adolescent angst and hormones provide a relatable entry point, Charlie’s tragic life gives the well-constructed story that packs an emotional punch I didn’t expect. As love ebbs and flows, he finds the pain of insecurity and missed opportunity taking its toll. Events in the present begin to allow memories of the past to permeate his consciousness and it only takes one powerful kick of adrenaline to leave an ever-widening crack in his psyche that risks breaking wide open at the slightest touch. Add in a mother (Kate Walsh) who would rather pretend everything is all right and a father (Dylan McDermott) too strong to admit his son needs love and it’s no surprise this boy feels so alone and so indebted to Patrick and Sam.

They create an everlasting bond complete with moments of irreparable damage and unavoidable reconciliation. Secrets are shared, feelings expressed, and life lived like it never could apart. Miller steals the film with a role completely opposite to his star-making turn in We Need to Talk About Kevin. So full of life and heartache, his Patrick becomes the pulse at which this trio moves forward in optimism despite the eventuality of their high school throne crumbling around them. Watson also shines in contrast to her iconic Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and proves she has a future in the business after all. There is warmth in her that rises above the character’s chasm of insecurity; a sage wisdom held back by the thoughts of a broken past.

While they are the flashier characters bolstering their new friend, it’s Logan Lerman who should receive applause for his stunning portrayal of childhood depression. Chbosky offers up some gorgeous scenes set to a stellar soundtrack with dancing kids, Rocky Horror Picture Show miming, and infinite hope flying through an evening-lit tunnel of pure bliss, but without its worthy center everything proves vacuously pretty. What starts as a quiet performance trapped in the emotional shell he’s erected gradually thaws with the help of drugs—pot, LSD, and love. And when the stakes crescendo once college looms to leave Charlie alone again, Lerman grabs hold of our attention and refuses to let go. This is humanity at its most raw and malleable and Chbosky makes sure not one false note is struck.

[1] (L-R) REECE THOMPSON, EMMA WATSON, LOGAN LERMAN and MAE WHITMAN star in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER Photo: John Bramley © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
[2] (L-R) MAE WHITMAN, EZRA MILLER and ERIN WILHELMI star in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER Photo: John Bramley © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[3] EMMA WATSON stars in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER Photo: Courtesy of Summit Entertainment © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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