Mark Reviews Movies

The Perks of Being a Wallflower


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Cast: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, Nina Dobrev, Johnny Simmons, Paul Rudd, Erin Wilhelmi, Adam Hagenbuch, Melanie Lynskey, Joan Cusack

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight - all involving teens)

Running Time: 1:43

Release Date: 9/21/12 (limited); 9/28/12 (wider); 10/5/12 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 27, 2012

High school has always been a personal and social hell for those who are considered different. As proof, here is The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a film based on the book of the same name that is set in the early 1990s, which is itself a semi-autobiographical account of its author's own experiences in the early '80s. In turn, the film, written and directed by the book's author Stephen Chbosky, might as well be set in the present, even if certain cues (mix tapes, a lack of cell phones and computers, etc.) suggest the book's period. That we're never wholly certain is an offshoot of the film's greatest strength: It has a sense of timelessness.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a particularly lucid time capsule—not of a specific decade or generation but of that utterly frightening moment when one realizes that one's life is about to be upturned. The longstanding evidence is that the change will not be for the better, either.

If the setup of this lovely little film is the long slog of confusion and anguish in adolescence, then its heart is the series of moments within that driftless stretch when something akin to clarity appears. It might be as simple as sharing a late-night meal with people who actually want to talk to the lonely kid whose first days at school don't hold much promise or as momentous as the first sight of a girl whose very visage promises the endless hope of the future and sharing a first kiss with the same girl, who says, "I love you," and means it—even if it's only in her way. Then again, maybe that it is "her way" is what makes it so special.

It's nearly impossible not to wax nostalgic while considering the film and its characters, even for those who have not read Chbosky's novel. There is something intangibly familiar about these events and the people within them—some memory buried deep in our mind, like the one that haunts Charlie (Logan Lerman), the lost protagonist of the story who simply wants to be found (Hopefully, whatever our memory might be is happier than that one).

Perhaps it's an old friend. Perhaps it's a song. Perhaps it's just that overarching feeling of unity between people who understand what it's like to be considered different. Whatever the mysterious thing is, Chbosky has tapped into it, and the result is a film that is as universal in its emotional anchoring as it is specific in relation to these characters and how they spar with whatever difficulties life throws at them. The answer to the second part, of course, is the only one: the best they can.

For Charlie, the way he invents to make it through high school is to imagine himself on his last day. It works to a point, but after spending time being teased and alone at lunch, it only winds up serving as a reminder of how many days he has left to put up with the solitude.

He has more problems than high school with which to deal, as well.  Charlie has never been a kid to have many friends; he even invents one, to whom he writes whenever he feels the need to talk to someone. Last year, he spent some time in the hospital, and he suspects that everyone who knows him looks at him in judgment. His English teacher (Paul Rudd) knows Charlie's story and why this clearly smart kid won't speak up in class, even when he writes down the answers to the teacher's question in his notebook. Instead, he assigns him extra reading assignments, which Charlie takes to with wild abandon (as a favorite teacher of mine was wont to say—again, it's that kind of film).

Charlie meets two people in the time following his initial introduction to the unforgiving halls of the school: Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson). They are stepbrother and stepsister; they are also the sort of people who believe they are better than everyone else. At first, it's slightly grating.

It's not so much that the two feel superior to the rest of the world; it's just they have given up on trying to be accepted and instead, in their last year in high school, embrace the fact that they never will. Charlie likes them instantly. After seeing Sam make Charlie a milkshake after the kid unknowingly eats a pot brownie at a party and watching Patrick offer a toast to their new friend when he learns what happened to Charlie last year, we like them, too.

Patrick is gay; his boyfriend Brad (Johnny Simmons) is the school's star football player.  They must keep the relationship a secret because Brad's father is an unforgiving religious sort. Sam gained a reputation during her own freshman year after a series of sexual encounters with older boys. Charlie is wise beyond his years about it: He's not going to judge her based on her past because he wouldn't want her to judge him based on his own.

Chbosky has the same philosophy about his characters, which is vital as their histories divulge themselves. Of central focus is Charlie's relationship with his aunt (Melanie Lynskey), of whom Sam reminds him. She was damaged, too, and the extent of it serves as a devastating revelation in the last act that helps to explain why Charlie is so tortured by his past.

Charlie, Sam, and Patrick spend a lot of time together—going to the occasional party, exchanging gifts at Christmas, and participating in midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Through it all, Charlie reaches milestones—like his awkward first romantic relationship with Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), who can't take a hint—and struggles to maintain his own identity in a group of such strong personalities while caring more about their problems than his own. Lerman's performance demands a lot, with the weight of old secrets and pain bearing down on him, and the young actor lives up to it.

Inevitably, things start to fall apart, as old tensions arise and the future starts to catch up to them all. In these moments, we get a sense of who these characters really are and why The Perks of Being a Wallflower affects as deeply as it does. These are decent people trying their best and coming up short because of forces they can't control. It's sad, yes, but hope burns brightly in there, too.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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