The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott. Directed by Stephen Chbosky.
In case you’re only hearing about it now, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a new film based on a very, very popular novel for young adults by Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the screenplay and directed the film. If the novel, published in 1999, has somehow escaped your notice, it’s likely because it didn’t reach quite the heights of such phenomena as the Harry Potter books or The Hunger Games, but among the fifteen-to-twenty-nine crowd, it has earned a kind of cult-like status, quoted religiously on Facebook walls and Tumblr blogs. Often cited as this generation’s Catcher in the Rye, it seems to have hit a nerve with every alienated teenager, which is to say it seems to have hit a nerve with every teenager.
I am forty-three years old, which means I was sixteen when The Breakfast Club was released. That film is a cultural landmark for people my age, a film that seemed first to get us, tapping into the angst common to every generation of teenagers, and then to define us, shaping a worldview dominated all our lives by our ubiquitous Baby-Boomer parents. As a high-school teacher for these past sixteen years, I have lamented the lack of such a landmark for the students I’ve taught. In some ways Titanic is the mile-marker movie for the students I taught in the late nineties, but that film lacks the generational ownership and identity that the Brat Pack films of the Eighties had for me and my friends. I had high hopes for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World (2010), but teens failed to grab onto either of those with the fervor I thought they might.
Now here is The Perks of Being a Wallflower, whose source material already seems to have tapped into the psyche of the current generation of teens, a movie whose trailer inspired at least two friends to wonder if this is a John Hughes movie for the 2010s. Chbosky is 42, so it isn’t surprising that he has made a teen movie that reminds us so much of the teen movies of our past. He undoubtedly grew up watching those same films.
His main character is Charlie, played by Logan Lerman. Charlie is a ninth-grader with no friends, socially awkward but eager to give high school his best shot. It is not his nature to reach out in friendship-making gestures, but after a few days of eating alone in the cafeteria, he makes himself do it at a school football game of all places, where he introduces himself to Patrick and Sam (Ezra Miller and Emma Watson), two seniors who are step-siblings and best friends. The older students like Charlie, and soon he is socializing with them at a local restaurant, in their homes, in the cafeteria, and at the monthly screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Fringe-dwellers themselves, Patrick and Sam seem much more comfortable in their alienated skin, participating in school activities but with a cool detachment that is equally forced upon them and instigated by them.
All by itself, that would make a pretty interesting movie with the actors and plot Chbosky has at his disposal, but intertwined with Charlie’s adventures with Sam and Patrick are scenes involving his relationships with members of his family. Scenes in Charlie’s house avoid the sitcommy rapidfire insults and prepackaged sentiment, focusing instead on parents who try hard and siblings who love each other but can drive each other crazy. Ask anyone who has read the novel and he or she will tell you that the family stuff is really the heart of the story, while the school stuff is the vehicle that serves it. My own viewing of the film is colored by my having read the novel first, so I can’t say with conviction the same about the movie, but the genuine effort taken to provide the main character with a meaningful home life is a plus in this film’s favor, something that too many of the great Eighties teen movies never attempt.
The acting is excellent from the three principal actors. Emma Watson has developed a remarkable quaver in her voice for those moments of veiled fragility, a tiny catch in her throat that brought me to tears more than once. There are a few problems with her American accent (only noticed by me the second time I viewed the film), but they can be forgiven for her otherwise very good performance. I had never heard of Ezra Miller, but his is the strongest performance in the film, worthy of a supporting-actor Oscar nomination at least. His ability to hold a scene together is testament to acting chops and a director who recognizes them. Logan Lerman’s Charlie is tentative but capable of asserting himself under the right circumstances. Lerman does a good job keeping him reined in most of the time, very believable as a sensitive, gifted reader with very little social grace.
The movie and its actors look terrific, as if Chbosky’s intentionally trying to create screen-captures over which the book’s best quotes will be captioned and re-Tumbled for the next fifteen years. I was reminded multiple times of the best frames in The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink, not to mention all those U2 photoshoots for The Joshua Tree. Look at this thing and tell me you don’t see twenty magazine ads for the Gap.
I admire Chbosky’s attempt to swing for the fences. There are silly moments that turn profound, and profound moments that turn silly, and small moments that feel almost private, and big moments that try to take off into space the way all the great movies do. It doesn’t all work, and Chbosky cuts short two very important conversations Charlie has with the other characters, one which can be excused but the other which cannot. And where he sometimes lets us in on Charlie’s thoughts through a voiceover narration (in the form of a letter he’s writing to an unnamed friend), in some of the big moments he tries to let the dialogue and action do all the work. It is a good try, but the payoffs feel too small for the bigness to which they aspire.
Yet The Breakfast Club had its flaws too, and that didn’t keep it from being the most-important movie of my youth. I can’t say whether or not The Perks of Being a Wallflower will be that movie for the students I know today, because I’m not the one who gets to make that determination. Still, here is probably the best candidate I’ve seen.