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From the DVD Shelf: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

November 8th, 2013

I am endlessly fascinated by coming-of-age stories, and I don’t think I’m alone.  I adore this sub-genre of movies, and when done right, I find these sorts of movies to be emotionally gripping.  I have seen a number of great coming-of-age films recently, as it happens, including The Spectacular Now (click here for my review), which I just wrote about earlier this week, and this past summer’s superlative The Way Way Back (click here for my review).  I missed The Perks of Being a Wallflower last year when it was released, but it’s been at the top of my radar and, now that I have seen it, I can easily say that it easily shoots up towards the top of my list of some of the best coming-of-that movies that I have ever seen.

I found The Perks of Being a Wallflower to be deeply moving, profound and powerful.  I loved it.

The film chronicles the tumultuous freshman year of high school of Charlie (Logan Lerman).  Charlie is a sweet, bright, quiet kid.  Something tragic has happened to him the previous year — at first we don’t know what — but Charlie is trying his best to be happy and to fit in.  Sadly, he enters his freshman year of high school with apparently no friends, and in the early scenes of the film we can feel his profound loneliness.  But then, after an almost chance encounter, Charlie finds himself practically adopted by two seniors — step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson).  At first these two have no idea the effect that their simple act of kindness has on Charlie, but as they get to know him they quickly grow to love their bright, clever, sensitive young new friend.  Charlie, meanwhile, is transformed by his friendship with Patrick and Sam and finds, in their small group of off-beat friends, a circle of people with whom he feels he belongs, something it seems that he has never before experienced.  The road towards the end of the school year is not easy for Charlie or Patrick or Sam, but each winds up affecting the other in often-surprising, deeply powerful ways.

The film is based on the 1999 novel by Stephen Chbosky, and incredibly Mr. Chbosky has not only written the film adaptation, he directed it too.  I can’t believe this film is the work of a first-time filmmaker.  It is incredibly well-made, not just gorgeous to look at, but what an actors’ showcase.  Mr. Chbosky has assembled a remarkable young cast, and he has drawn incredibly wonderful performances from each and every one of them.

All three of the main actors are just staggeringly great, an absolute joy to watch.  What a pleasure it is to see such a perfect melding of performers and material.  Let’s start with Logan Lerman as Charlie.  Charlie is a quiet boy (he has a speech at the end of the movie, and it’s only then that I realized how little Charlie had said out loud up to that point) and I love how Mr. Lerman is able to play everything very softly and gently.  He plays everything with small movements and gestures, but we can see a whole world of emotion behind his eyes.  There is a lot going on inside Charlie’s head, much of it very troubling, and Mr. Lerman is able to show us all of that while keeping Charlie a sweet, endearing boy.  This is the polar opposite of a showy role, which makes Mr. Lerman’s performance all the more impressive.

Ezra Miller plays Patrick.  Now this IS a showy role, because Patrick is all about big gestures and bold statements.  But this is just as easy a character to get wrong, making Patrick a one-note class clown and/or gay stereotype.  Mr. Miller is incredible at bringing all the shades of Patrick to life.  We can see how Charlie is drawn this this bold, brash, funny fellow, and how appealing Patrick’s joie de vivre is to Charlie.  But Mr. Miller also shows us the other sides of Patrick, not just the difficulty he has dealing with daily humiliations at school (though not as immediately obvious, in many ways Patrick is even more of an outcast than Charlie is) but also in the simple kindnesses this big personality shows to Charlie, and the genuine interest he takes in him.

Then there is Emma Watson as Sam.  Yet another tricky role, Sam could have been nothing more than an idealized, “perfect girl” who Charlie was crushing on.  But Ms. Watson is able to show us every way in which Sam is perfect to Charlie — her beauty, her kindness, her energy, her great taste in music and art — but also every way in which she, too, is deeply damaged.  In this, her first major role following almost a decade of playing Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies, Ms. Watson forever puts that character behind her and shows herself to be a tremendous actor.

Together, the three kids are magical, and the power of the movie rests on their incredible chemistry with one another.  I was terribly sad to leave these characters behind when the end credits rolled.  I wish I could stay with them, to see what happens next in their lives.  I also deeply wish I could give each one of these kids a big hug!

Paul Rudd is great in a supporting role as Charlie’s English teacher, with whom Charlie bonds.  Mae Whitman (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is also great as the strong-willed Mary Elizabeth, one of Sam and Patrick’s friends with whom Charlie finds himself in a bit of a romantic entanglement.  Dylan McDermott, Melanie Lynsky, Kate Walsh, Nina Dobrev, and the great Joan Cusack all do strong work in their smaller roles, nicely filling out the edges of Charlie’s world.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is, ultimately, a hopeful, joy-filled film.  But it is also unflinching in looking closely at the terrible, awkward moments so familiar to almost anyone who went through high school, and also the deep pain and sadness that, though they don’t know it at first, links Charlie and Patrick and Sam.  The film digs deeply into each of the threesome’s personal anguish, and, in particular, there are some revelations about Chalie in the final twenty-minutes-or-so of the film that I found to be absolutely wrenching.  This is a film that has stuck with me, and in the days since seeing it I have thought of this film, and these characters, often.

There are a handful of small details in the film that seemed off to me.  For one, I was surprised at the access these kids had to some pretty heavy drugs (as we see in the middle of the film when suddenly Charlie has a tab of acid on his tongue), and I was also surprised to see these kids involved in a Rocky Horror Picture Show performance group.  Even for the free-spirited Sam and Patrick, performing regularly in that sexually-frank show at midnight seemed to me to be more like a college-kid-or-older thing to do.  But the over-all tone of the film is so powerfully convincing, so right, that I almost feel badly about mentioning these tiny quibbles.

I can also see why some aspects of the the film have raised people’s eyebrows.  The film is remarkably non-judgmental about the characters’ behaviors.  I am thinking particularly of Charlie’s dropping acid in the middle of the film, something none of his friends seem to bat much of an eye at (and, presumably, he got the acid from them).  But while the film’s frankness about drug use and sexuality has made it (and, even more so, Mr. Chbosky’s original novel) a subject of criticism for some, I found this to be one of the keys to the film’s power.  This isn’t a movie made by someone looking down his nose at teenagers.  This is a movie that is remarkably empathetic to the struggles of teenagers, a movie that understands their desperate desire to figure out who they are and where they belong.  This film puts us right there inside their heads, feeling along with them all of the incredible highs and lows that teenagers feel.  I found it to be deliriously affecting.

I was quite blown away by The Perks of Being a Wallflower and I have found this a hard film to shake.  Highly recommended, gang.

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