A surprising many of America’s great teen movies are nostalgic pieces. The two greatest, arguably, are American Graffiti and Dazed And Confused, both lively remembrances unctuously devoted to the minutia of their respective milieus. But in resurrecting bygone eras—the early 1960’s and mid 1970’s—those two movies presented more than merely time-capsule fashions (hotrods and The Beach Boys; bellbottoms and Black Sabbath). They expressed, and continue to express, the universal themes of growing up. When executed with honesty and keen perception, a teen film has the ability to transcend time and place, conveying not only the small transitory window of its singular characters and setting, but moreover, the entire temporal and geographical spectrum of human adolescent experience.
Like those other films, The Perks of Being a Wallflower qualifies as a period piece. (It takes place in the 90’s!) Also like them, it has sequences that are timelessly identifiable, with characters that are never clichés, don’t fit into tidy high-school-movie stereotypes, and emerge as recognizable human beings in familiar situations. Directed by first-timer Stephan Chbosky (based on his bestseller), Perks isn’t perfect, however. It’s by turns truthful and absurd, relatable and curiously preternatural. In the final act, the story trails off into a kind of outrageous psycho-dramatic nightmare. For the most part, though, the creators deeply understand their subjects: the childish insecurities and the intense yearning for love and acceptance.
The coming-of-age drama focuses on Charlie, a 14-year-old freshman at a Pittsburgh high school. Shy, forlorn, and socially guileless, Charlie is played by newcomer Logan Lerman with lachrymose vulnerability, evident in the way he wanders the hallways and classrooms of his campus like a lost lamb, too withdrawn, bemused, and self-conscious to muster so much as a whimper around his peers. Charlie is treading water at school, less a small fish in a big pond than a guppy in an ocean teeming with great whites, and they smell blood. Related in voice over, the amateur scribe drafts faux-correspondences with a non-existent pen pal he calls “friend”. The sporadic confessions grant us unlimited access to his soul, as he lays bare shards of his tender heart with every punch of a typewriter key.
Charlie desperately wants to fit in, and although he develops a kinship with his English teacher (Paul Rudd), he has little luck with the student body. Eventually, Charlie connects with Patrick (Ezra Miller), a histrionic goofball sitting alone at a football game. Once welcomed into Patrick’s offbeat clique of upperclassmen, Charlie meets the plain-Jane Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman)—who he dates briefly, but only because he’s too polite to break up with her—and the beautiful Sam, a fetching free spirit played by a never-lovelier Emma Watson. We’re introduced to her just as Charlie is, in a glowing close-up that recalls memories of the celestial perfection reserved for a person’s first sight of first love.
That shot stands out in a film that offers a handful of candid frissons. So too does a hookup scene between Charlie and Mary Elizabeth, wherein his timid nature, disinterest, and inexperience combine to make sensible the shivery awkwardness of unrequited affection.
As the school year passes by, the kids reveal themselves to us gradually, like a deliberately built up rock anthem. Sam’s desire to share music with her friends (remember mixed tapes?) symbolizes her boundlessly generous spirit. From his uncanny Dr. Frank-N-Furter send-ups at midnight screenings of Rocky Horror, Patrick proves himself publicly jocular and confident, but privately dejected, heartbroken by his secret lover’s refusal to acknowledge their relationship. Charlie emits a quietly ruminative air, by which he observes his surroundings, displaying the artistic altruism of Hemingway or Salinger. By beckoning us into its circle of wallflowers, the film lets us empathize with and embrace them in an astoundingly humanistic manner, illuminating their imperfections for the purpose of affording them vibrantly realistic identities.
The performances emphasize that plucked-from-the-hallways veracity. Lerman makes Charlie achingly sympathetic and sincere. The gifted Miller, so nefarious as a killer in We Need To Talk About Kevin, here belies that cartoonish wrath with an ironic self-assurance that veils Patrick’s scars. Maturing with every role, English actress Emma Watson not only poses ably for a Pennsylvanian—she embodies a mythic object of male teenage infatuation with such elegance that it’s easy to overlook how she’s deconstructing it. Sam, anguishing in regrets and buried memories, is too substantive to be a simple ideal, and Watson plays her with an alluring mysteriousness informed by the actress’s solid comprehension of her character’s unspoken traumas.
Admittedly, Watson is too gorgeous to pass as an unpopular misfit, but that’s hardly the most unconvincing aspect of the movie. Adapted by Chbosky himself, the script tends toward unnecessary overkill. Some of the students display malevolence more typical of prison inmates. I mean: Do we really need that wretched girl in Charlie’s class who constantly calls him a fag? In a drunken avowal, Charlie confides to Sam that his best friend committed suicide over the summer. If that alarming tidbit seems over-the-top, just wait for the climactic twist. In short, it’s too exorbitantly dark and too heavily obscured in hazy psychology to enrich the film in any profound way. At that point, I could no longer relate. I could no longer say, “Hey, we’ve all been there.” Because I haven’t, thank God.
Even if Perks veers perilously close to shock-value mendacity, it’s still the best film of its genre since An Education. Chbosky’s adaptation elucidates the convalescing power of human connection and empathy. Charlie is so introverted because he’s essentially his own best friend. Locked precariously inside his own consciousness, he associates, per his writing, only with his reflection, like light bouncing between mirrors. When Sam and Patrick graciously offer their friendship, Charlie is finally able to arise from his prison, join the world, and live his life. Standing in the flatbed of a pickup truck, cruising through a tunnel as David Bowie’s “Heroes” blasts from the stereo, he proclaims, “In this moment, we are infinite.” To be young and alive is to experience the moment like it’s everlasting.