There’s something all those coming of age stories have forgotten over the years. For some, discovering what you love comes with a feeling of regret. How different would I be if I found all these great things sooner? Would I be smarter? Would I be more honest? Would I have put up with so much abuse? Where would my life be?
These are questions we should ask as teenagers, but for some it comes later than others, if at all. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” shows just how difficult that can be for people so young. But because it celebrates youth, music, love, rebellion and discovery, it’s a film that allows us to see and understand the world a little better. It’s a rare film that can help us grow.
The movie is based off a cult teen novel of the same name, and although it only came out in 1999, the book has for some meant as much to contemporary youth as “The Catcher in the Rye” has for so long. With how defensive today’s kids are about adapting their favorite novels into movies, something with such a passionate following could not have been directed or written by anyone other than the book’s author, Stephen Chbosky.
Thankfully he has made his book into a film, and he’s made a lovely one. Rather than stage it as a collection of anonymous letters like his novel, the film follows many of the punches of a standard coming-of-age drama. It lacks the narrative simplicity of “The Breakfast Club,” the indie charm of “Juno” or the visual splendor of “Rushmore,” but it matches all of those in endearing characters, confident dialogue and timelessness.
Its hero Charlie (Logan Lerman) is as shy and timid as they come. Walking into his freshman year, he’s already counting the days until graduation. People he once knew have become unnecessarily cruel. “Nice trapper keeper faggot,” one straight-A girl he’s known since grade school says, instantly putting him at the bottom of the totem pole.
But Charlie’s problem is deeper. He’s had extended stays in psychiatric wards and lost his best friend to suicide. “He shot himself last May,” he says bluntly at a party after he unknowingly gets “baked like a cake.”
Two outcast seniors take him under their wing. The first is Patrick (Ezra Miller), an openly gay kid nicknamed “Nothing” in school after he tries to prank their shop teacher. The other is Sam (Emma Watson), who has been labeled a slut since she was 11.
Both have bigger personalities than Charlie’s blank slate, and because he’s so much younger, he becomes a character upon who Patrick and Sam can project their tastes in The Smiths and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as well as their regrets. How they wish they could’ve learned all Charlie is about to when they were freshmen.
I connected with this movie because I too feel I’ve grown. I’m 22, and I didn’t really make friends who shared my intense interest in movies and music until as recently as two years ago. “I used to be popular until Sam got me into good music,” Patrick says to Charlie with a smile. It’s as if the need to be liked prevents us from fully learning about everything we love.
These are familiar, maybe even cliché thoughts. But “Perks” has a way of taking what each movie before it has said and says it so much better. The film never speaks falsely, it never leaves its state of reverie, and it never becomes too cynical in its effort to be clever.
Logan Lerman is still a young actor, but he shows such a transformation of personality and character as soon as he eats that pot brownie. He shows himself becoming an adult. Ezra Miller, who was so twisted in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” exhibits a similarly perception changing role. He’s funny, likeable and one of the most memorable movie characters this year. And as for Emma Watson, she’s made her transition from “Harry Potter” complete. She’s still not the strongest of performers, but she too is growing.
Where would I be if I saw this movie when I was Charlie’s age? What would I have come to realize in my life a whole lot sooner? Maybe nothing, as “Perks” explains early on. “We accept the love we think we deserve,” Charlie’s English teacher says to him. We can try to change our minds, but some of us just won’t see until a lot more growing’s been done.
Most kids accept the movies they think they deserve too. They haven’t matured yet. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” may not be one of the best high school movies ever made, but this is a film for a new generation. With any luck, they’ll see it and graduate to things that are even better.