The intense and sometimes terrifying emotions of adolescence, so easily forgotten by adults, are revived, with thoughtfulness and deep affection in The Perks of Being A Wallflower, in which writer and director Stephen Chbosky adapts his own hit young adult novel. It's only Chbosky's second feature, and his first with any kind of real budget, but he navigates the treacherous terrain of altering his own novel quite well. At the very least, he picked a damn-near-perfect cast, which in a movie about the deep feelings and pains of growing up, is more than half the battle.
As the titular wallflower Charlie, Logan Lerman is a little more blank and mannered than the character ought to be, but he's more than balanced out by two terrific co-stars-- Harry Potter alum Emma Watson as ultimate cool-girl-crush Sam, and especially We Need To Talk About Kevin's Ezra Miller as her vivacious brother Patrick. Charlie befriends both Sam and Patrick early on in his freshman year of high school, where he's particularly vulnerable after the suicide of his only real friend from middle school. Sam and Patrick, who call their gang of friends the "island of misfit toys," do all kinds of silly and cool high-school things, like organizing a Rocky Horror live show, going to all the dingy and most interesting parties, or standing on the bed of a truck while driving way too fast through Pittsburgh's Fort Pitt tunnel.
Being the kind of high school story that spans an entire year, Perks has a rangy and loose narrative, tied together by Charlie's perspective and his occasionally deteriorating mental state. We see his nameless parents (Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh) as well-meaning but distant, his popular sister (Nina Dobrev) as an occasionally exasperated but loving caretaker, and in flashbacks his beloved Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey), whose death in a car accident is just one of the many things that haunts Charlie about his short life. Charlie is a deeply internal character, and so passive he gets in a relationship with the bossy Mary Elizabeth (the great Mae Whitman) essentially against his will, and can make for a frustrating window into this world, especially near the end of the film when the story takes a sharp turn into Charlie's own mental struggles. With Lerman punching a little above his weight class, and Chbosky an able but not outstanding director, the film's occasional jumps into melodrama doesn't quite ring true, and expose the fact that the movie, while quite good, can't drive through to its own heart the way the book did.
But there are also indelible moments spread throughout the film, like Sam and Patrick's self consciously showy dance in the school gym, the "infinite" drive through the tunnel, or the cafeteria fight after Patrick confronts the football player (Johnny Simmons) he had been dating in secret. Especially with the electric Miller playing him, Patrick is the movie's best contribution to the ranks of cinematic high schoolers, openly gay and popular in that way of wild outsiders, brazen and confident but a little broken too. No one can match him when he's onscreen, even with such a strong cast behind him, but Chbosky knows this, and lets the film's best scenes play out powerfully enough that they make up for what's weaker.
The Perks of Being A Wallflower might not become as iconic as the best-selling book, but its insights into the inner lives of teenagers remain as affecting and rare as they were when the novel was published 10 years ago. Chbosky can't reinvent the characters he created for the screen, but he's definitely done right by them.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich
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