Every decade has a handful of coming-of-age stories that define a generation and tap into an emotional nostalgia of youth that becomes hazy as time passes. This decade’s coming of age story focuses on a high school freshman whose awkward, shy demeanor has become defined by the heavy past he’s trying to recover from. Like films of years past, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a success at capturing the emotionally challenging rite of passage in our confusing teenage years.
For any doubters of the film, here’s my look into why this film is worth giving a chance…
High school freshman Charlie (Logan Lerman) is an introverted outsider with no friends, aside from the English teacher he meets on his first day of school, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd). The concept of “fitting in” seems foreign to Charlie after you learn (within the first five minutes of the movie) that Charlie’s best friend committed suicide over the summer, rendering him emotionally distraught. But, it’s when Charlie meets vivacious stepsiblings Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller) that his shell begins to break. He documents his experience in letters to an unknown friend as he tells his story.
Audiences may initially be skeptical prior to viewing: it’s based on a novel, which is often a recipe for Hollywood machinations and dissatisfied readers. I’ve never read the book, but according to readers, the movie closely follows the book, which would be any author-turned-director’s intention. It’s a rarity for an author to adapt his novel into a screenplay and subsequently take on the title as director of the film, but that’s exactly what first-time director Stephen Chbosky did.
As for the trailer of the film, like a few movies this year, it’s misleading. In a good way. The trailer presents all the clichés of high school: the loner boy, the cliques, the angst, and the confusion of being a teenager. What the trailer is hiding is the deep-rooted, unconventional issues that most teen movies overlook, or joke their way through in popular comedic fashion—Easy A and Mean Girls are prime examples of this popular trope. But Perks has an emotionally raw honesty that penetrates a core many of us have repressed or forgotten about. This movie took me completely by surprise and off-guard.
An incredible ensemble of actors carries this film first and foremost. Logan Lerman embodies the character of Charlie effortlessly, and it’s hard not to empathize with the character and to genuinely love him. What differentiates his character from those of clichés past is that there’s an intensely dark history behind Charlie that looms around him and is most severe on his “bad days.” But this isn’t a character drowning in his tragedy or self-pity. His motives for wanting to make friends are far from superficial; he wants to proactively make his four years of high school extraordinary, despite his emotional setbacks. His determination pushes him to sit by a comedic senior, Patrick, at a football game, who introduces him to his stepsister, Sam. It’s impossible not to want to root for Charlie; he’s such a likeable character…you want everything to perpetually go right.
And that’s where Patrick and Sam step in to help alleviate the tension Charlie initially felt upon his arrival into high school. Emma Watson and Ezra Miller are charming, compatible and believable from their first scene to their last. Hermione who? Watson has undeniably put Hogwarts in her rear view mirror; following a brief, unmemorable role in My Week With Marilyn, this film puts her on the map. Some critics have noted that this film was stolen by Ezra Miller (We Need To Talk About Kevin). Not only does he serve as brilliant comic relief, but almost steals every scene he’s in. His character and Watson’s both have dark issues of their own that create a connection to Charlie. As Sam says to Charlie, “Welcome to the island of misfit toys.”
The plot spans over an entire year: Charlie’s freshman year, and Sam/Patrick’s senior year. The date falls somewhere in the early nineties, which is never directly mentioned and remains ambiguous. Small noticeable elements of the film demonstrate that it isn’t the 21st century: no cell phones, no computers, and no DVDs; but they do have cassette tapes, and love record players, in a non-hipster way. The time frame of the film mirrors the book, but it also helps maintain focus and eliminate distractions. Here’s what old-school life looked like, here were the problems and this is how teenagers dealt with the world prior to the explosion of technology. There’s a scene where they’re driving in the car and hear a song, which basically becomes their mantra throughout the film, but they have no idea what the song is or who it’s by until the end. There’s no Shazam to solve this problem. But the film contains all the elements of high school that we all can relate to: parties, peer pressure, drugs, alienation, and finding where you fit in the realm of high school society.
Perks is nostalgic, tragic and realistic to the point of discomfort. Films in recent years that aimed to present realistic high school issues in a comedic fashion, like Easy A, resonated with audiences as clever and unique. Perks raises the bar and steps beyond the isolation of the typical “high school genre.” Will this be the next Breakfast Club, Stand By Me, or Dead Poet’s Society? Probably not. But Perks is the answer to the void we’ve had since classics such as those.