Movie review: 'Perks of Being a Wallflower' a well-told tale of teenage angst
Stories about angst-ridden teens coming of age often fester like acne, but Stephen Chbosky’s beautifully rendered adaptation of his semiautobiographical novel, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” is different. It’s more like a shot of Clearasil to a raw, painful pustule attached to the melancholic memories of youth. You can sense it penetrating your pores, gnawing at the areas infected by an adolescence ruefully spent nursing broken hearts and bitter disappointments. It stings, too. But not as much as it could have if Chbosky hadn’t anesthetized those wounds with euphoric doses of nostalgia.
The time is the early 1990s, an era when high school outcasts found solace in the ennui-fueled music of The Smiths and embraced anarchy via cross-dressing antics performed during participatory screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” But while the period is specific, the lessons and the truths are as timeless as the trio of “wallflowers” witnessed sprouting from the mud. True, the triumvirate of Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and Emma Watson are a tad too beautiful and glamorous to portray social lepers, but the ease in which these three fine actors involve you in their broken, battered characters makes it a cinch to look past bright faces and into darkened souls.
You can’t help but be moved by them and their struggles to coexist with their hypocritical peers, who shun them for either being gay, promiscuous or in the case of Chbosky’s alter ego, Charlie, possessing a fragile psyche. They’re bullied, chastised, ostracized, and in the case of Watson’s self-loathing, Sam, taken advantage of by horny college boys. You ache for them, but you also admire their courage to stay true to who they are and what they believe, finding safety in numbers by sticking close to the other castaways on their self-described “island of broken toys.” And what a fascinating posse they are, especially Mae Whitman’s outwardly sophisticated but internally naïve Mary Elizabeth, whose clumsily executed sexual come-ons to Charlie are as hilarious as they are heartbreaking.
It’s fun spending time with them and eavesdropping on their intellectual soirees, but to Chbosky’s credit, the first-time director never allows the focus to shift far from Lerman’s endearing portrayal of Charlie, a slight but handsome freshman still reeling from his best friend’s suicide. Chronically shy and socially inept, Charlie is literally counting the days until graduation. Or, at least he is until he has the fortune of hooking up with Sam and her openly gay half-brother, Patrick (Miller, in a career-making performance), who welcome Charlie into their misfits clique, even though he’s a freshman and they’re seniors. Like the book, the movie chronicles the ever-tightening bonds that develop between them over the course of the school year. Some of what transpires is clichéd, like Charlie’s unrequited love for Sam and his confiding in an idyllic teacher (Paul Rudd), who turns the burgeoning writer onto a series of literary classics. But more often than not, “Perks” proves a thoughtful examination of the healing powers of love, friendship and the arts.
Still, fans of Chbosky’s source novel may quibble with the ways his script streamlines characters and pulls punches to narrowly avoid an R rating. But the intent and the payoff are no less impactful, especially when “Perks” bravely delves into issues of incest, depression, homophobia and most hauntingly, death. And rarely does any of it feel fake. Credit much of that to the power of the three young leads, all of whom are extraordinary. But then four-star performances from Lerman (“Jack and Bobby,” “3:10 to Yuma”) and Miller (“We Need to Talk about Kevin”) are practically a given. Less so in the case of Watson, who rips her “Harry Potter” ties to shreds with a performance of unexpected depth and complexity. In Sam, she does the nearly impossible in rendering a fully sympathetic ice queen whose pathos is every bit the equal of her erudite beauty. She may not be the heart of the movie, but she’s certainly its soul.
Perhaps that’s why you grow a bit miffed when Chbosky largely thrusts her aside during a lamentably hurried third act in which he hastens to tie up loose ends and offer closure. But in so doing, he sacrifices all the nuances that were “Wallflower’s” most cherished perks. By then, however, your investment in the story is so strong, so tight, nothing, not even a brief stay at the insane asylum, can dampen your affection for a movie that, for once, gets teen angst right.
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (PG-13 for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content and a fight – all involving teens.) Cast includes Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller and Mae Whitman. Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky. 3 stars out of 4.