Though many have tried, no filmmaker over the last two decades has ever been able to capture the generation-defining spark that turned John Hughes into a legend throughout the 1980s. From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Pretty in Pink and the immortal The Breakfast Club, Hughes had a knack for making films that tapped into the core of the adolescent spirit. Besides those timeless classics, I’ve never come across a film that’s been able to bring back to life the memories of my youth, until now. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, writer-director Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own popular novel, is a film bursting with an emotional honesty that’s a time machine for the heart and that would certainly make Hughes proud if he were alive to see it.
The sensitive Logan Lerman stars as Charlie, an extremely insecure teenager starting his first year at high school in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Like all misunderstood kids, Charlie is lost in his own head, emotionally damaged after a string of tragic events left him in a mental hospital. For much of the film’s beginning, Lerman pouts, mopes, and stutters, overly playing up Charlie’s isolation in a way that feels a bit forced. All of this changes, however, with the arrival of the sensational Emma Watson and Ezra Miller; the two play the beautiful Sam and her gay stepbrother, Patrick, two seniors who befriend the lost Charlie and introduce him to a life of love and friendship. The film focuses on Charlie’s freshman year as he navigates the trials and tribulations of high school, from his passionate crush on Sam to his relationship with Mary Elizabeth, a Goth-punk chic played with dry wit by Mae Whitman, and his experiences with drugs, parties, and typical freshman year shenanigans.
With its typical plot devices and heavy narration (Lerman speaks about the infinite nature of life and the messed up baggage of love), Perks is more or less your standard coming-of-age story; and yet, the film becomes so much more special due to its wonderful performances that really tap into the frustrations and accomplishments that come with being a teenager. Miller is the film’s breakthrough, and between his exceptional work here as Patrick and his nightmarish role in last year’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, this is one young actor to watch. As Patrick, Miller is infectious (I dare you not to crack a smile during his theatrically sassy Rocky Horror performances) and quietly heartbreaking; no matter gay, straight, or bisexual, Miller speaks to any lover who has ever had to put on that tough exterior shell to hide his/her crumbling heart. For much of the film, Patrick is assured and strong-willed, but in a few scenes of vulnerability, Miller hints at a damaged soul in moments of silent tragedy and extreme poignancy.
Major praise must also be given to the beautiful Emma Watson. If there was ever a performance to break the casting spell of Hermione Granger, this is it and Watson rapturously succeeds. Like all teens, Sam is equal parts confident and screwed up, and Watson’s ability to give any line a humble earnestness is what makes it so easy to see why Charlie would fall and crush hard on this wild child senior. Composed and charming, Watson has all the talent and grace of such actress’ like Cary Mulligan, and I hope her career follows a similar path to that of the Oscar-nominated beauty (I certainly think its possible). While Logan Lerman is certainly passable as Charlie, he’s ultimately no match for the riveting duo that is Watson and Miller – they simply steal the show.
Making its debut feature, Chbosky’s direction also shows great promise. Shot in 35mm, the film is big and beautiful, and Chbosky utilizes as many close-ups as he can in order to really show the emotional journeys of each of his characters. I especially adored the way he first shows Watson’s Sam; with a jarring close-up and a light shining brightly behind her head, the director’s first vision of Sam is that of a heavenly presence looking down upon Charlie and the audience and it couldn’t be more metaphorically perfect. Even better is the way he overexposes much of the film (lights, candles, Christmas lights, etc. all shine bright and cozy), a choice that, as a friend and fellow critic said, makes the film look and breathe like an old, vintage photo album. The soundtrack, with hits from The Smiths and Sonic Youth, is also a complete knockout, further transporting you back to a time of youthfulness. Seriously, if you’re not jamming out to David Bowie’s “Heroes” for hours after the film, I’m not sure what’s wrong with you!
With its daring sense of authenticity, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a slice of life movie that somehow manages to become a slice of your own life; thanks to its irresistible performances, the film transforms from a standard coming-of-age drama into a special little film with a big voice that speaks directly to the beat of your childhood heart. By the time the film was ending, and Charlie, Sam, and Patrick were cruising down the highway as Charlie spoke the book’s immortal line (“In this moment we are infinite”), I was overcome with nostalgic chills – I think you will be too. At this point, I would love to see Oscar-nominations for Adapted Screenplay as well as Supporting Actor – Miller may be a dark horse, but damn, he is simply amazing.
Review by Zack Sharf