As the movies have shown us, if not life itself, growing up is hard. In particular, that awkward pre-teen/teenager transition from middle school to high school can be especially difficult. Children, being the relative newcomers to existence that they are, tend to be socially untrained and unrefined (i.e. themselves). It doesn’t take many years of communal education though before the “normalization” process begins to occur, putting extreme pressure on any personalities deemed too unique to conform.
This awesome terror put upon the fragile psyches of blooming adolescents can have a number of different effects, but for the introverted among us, the all too common occurrence is a detachment from the world that surrounds us. Like a war correspondent reporting from some exotic, savaged landscape, the name of the game becomes observation and survival. Keep your head down, keep your eyes open, and stick to the sidelines, hoping that when the day is done, you’ll come out unscathed.
This is, more or less, the life of a wallflower, and is the situation we find our protagonist, Charlie (Logan Lerman), enduring at the beginning of the film. Entering high school as a freshman with seemingly no ties to any other student at the school, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on the novel of the same name written by the film’s writer/director Stephen Chbosky, follows Charlie as he transforms from a timid, psychologically-scarred child to a self-assured, mentally stable young adult.
Of course, any drastic metamorphosis taking place within the confines of a single freshman year can not occur in solitude, but is undoubtedly sparked by interactions with friends. Although starting out without a friend in the world, Charlie quickly finds his clique with seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller), an outwardly homosexual student carrying on a secret relationship with a popular football player, and his quirky stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), as well as the rest of their band of merry misfits and social outliers.
Despite being three years their junior, Charlie quickly becomes an accepted and popular member of the group of outcasts, and as the school year progresses, Charlie becomes increasingly infatuated with the charismatic Sam. He watches in silent frustration, too scared to express his feelings, as she continually settles for guys she thinks she “deserves”. Meanwhile, the typical high school melodrama and group dynamics end up confusing things even more, causing Charlie to be temporarily ostracized from the group only to be brought back into the fold after Charlie heroically comes to the rescue of Patrick in a crucial moment.
As you can probably deduce from the above synopsis, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is your typical coming-of-age story. This is a well-mined genre of cinema history, so for any film embarking on this journey, the key is to distinguish yourself from the multitude of others that have preceded you, and this film does do that in some respects.
The first noteworthy element of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and the aspect that has rightfully garnered the most praise from critics, is the performances from the young cast. It is always a risky proposition to rest so much responsibility on people who have experienced relatively little in their lives, but the three main players (Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, and Emma Watson), all pass with flying colors.
Playing the protagonist, Lerman is given the heaviest task, but none of that stress shows. He manages to convincingly convey an introvert while maintaining enough depth to avoid emphasizing the “wall” in wallflower. Ezra Miller gets the showiest role of the three, but even with his character’s flamboyant nature, Miller never abuses this personality as a license to go completely off the wall. Meanwhile, Emma Watson, most known to children everywhere as Hermione in the Harry Potter films, proves she may have an adult career in the industry post-Potter. Portraying much more adult emotions than ever asked of her in the world renowned wizardry series, her presence on screen is appropriately enthralling, making it easy to see why Charlie is as drawn to her as he is.
The film’s narrative is also a step above your average coming-of-age fare. While unarguably more on the melodramatic side than many of its peers, The Perks of Being a Wallflower backs this up by adding more depth to its characters than is typical for the genre. These are not simple interchangeable caricatures of “freaks and geeks”, but real human beings with histories and back stories, and the film does a good job alluding to these past events, even if I wish it would have more explicitly explored some of these stories.
The film also has a surprise revelation at the end that I expect will be polarizing. Some will say it adds depth and subtext to what would otherwise be just another story about a kid struggling through high school, while others will point out that it totally changes what the movie essentially is about. Personally, I was mostly indifferent to the revelation, feeling it was probably unnecessary, but not so much so that it detracted from my overall opinion of the film.
Where the film lags behind though is in its sense of cinema. Stephen Chbosky, who wrote the book and the film’s screenplay, and made the story’s protagonist a budding young writer, clearly has more of an affinity for writing than directing. Chbosky does imbue the film with an appropriate sense of measured pacing, but there is nothing in it that particularly takes advantage of the fact that the story resides within the world of cinema.
For instance, even when the film uses music to give us the sense of other worldliness, a technique that can only happen at the movies, it often does so in an awkward way. In an early scene at a high school dance, Patrick and Sam jump on the dance floor when Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen” begins playing. As Charlie watches as this magical moment unfolds, all other ambient noise drops out, giving the scene a sense of almost dream euphoria. At the same time though, the camera continues its pedestrian, static placement it had only moments earlier, resulting in a weird dissonance that dampens the effect the scene was meant to have.
The film also fails to do the one thing that cinema does better than anything else: establish a sense of place and time. From some of the musical choices in the film and the fact that the characters record mix tapes on actual cassettes, it is easy to guess the film takes place in either the late 80’s or early 90’s, and in fact, after researching a bit about the book, the story apparently takes place during the school year of 1991/1992.
For most, I’m sure this historical vagueness won’t even be an afterthought, and if they had been mentioning Nirvana in every other scene, I guess that wouldn’t have added much either. The overall generic feel to the small details though prevent the film from popping off the screen like it could have, and when the film occasionally does trifle into the stereotypical, it calls more attention onto itself than need be. If Mr. Chbosky plans on continuing to direct in the future, I hope he delves a bit deeper into the film theory side of things, because if he could have properly aided this film’s strong narrative a bit more, this really could have been a home run.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower has a lot going for it. A strong youthful cast, an above-par story with fleshed out characters, and some memorable scenes. It’s unfortunate then, stylistically, the film does not keep up with its own pace, failing to transcend the genre’s formulaic roots as much as it might have. Still, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an easy recommendation, especially for fans of the coming-of-age genre.
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