“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”
1 hour, 42 minutes
In the 1980s, John Hughes held the defining vision of high school life, at least cinematically. “Pretty in Pink,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”; the list goes on and on.
This is not to say that this vision wasn’t heightened or skewed significantly from reality — after all, what Hollywood effort has ever really gotten it right? But John Hughes managed to, at least, employ his characters with a poetic introspection that got at a kind of truth that other high school-themed movies miss. After Hughes’ high-school period, the torch was picked up by another director with a similar vibe, Cameron Crowe, who created the seminal “Say Anything,” and “Almost Famous,” among others. Crowe, whose films, other than “Say Anything,” weren’t really about high school, nevertheless nailed that sense of thoughtful, inward examination. These are two filmmakers whose films were about the characters, not about the situations they found themselves in.
Sad to say, this is not the case for high school movies of today. Most of these teen flicks are either saccharine, obnoxiously crude, or both. Worse, they have nothing to say, nothing to reveal. Judd Apatow seems to want to get at the heart of what made those 80s movies great, but he can’t seem to let himself, instead choosing to pack his films full to the brim with R-rated content at the expense of honest characterization. And his films are about the best of what’s out there. That’s what I thought, that is, until I rented “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” this weekend.
“Wallflower” feels out of place, almost out of time, which is appropriate since it is set in the ‘80s. What it is not, however, is a Hughes/Crowe knockoff. “Wallflower” is definitely its own thing, somewhat darker than either of those filmmakers would have chosen to go, but with recognizable characters.
Logan Lerman plays Charlie, a high school freshman who is struggling to find a place to fit in within the complicated and intricate hierarchy of the school. It’s hard being a freshman, especially for Charlie, who seems to be carrying some heavy baggage.
Just when it seems like Charlie’s only friend is going to be his English teacher, played by Paul Rudd with just the kind of dorky cool that only Paul Rudd can pull off, things suddenly turn around. In shop class, of all places, Charlie comes across a distraught senior named Patrick and takes his side, creating a bond forged by common circumstances.
Charlie has no friends because he’s an awkward underclassman. Patrick, on the other hand, is gay, but that’s not to say he has no friends. Charlie’s connection to Patrick opens up a whole new world, introducing him to an eclectic cast of characters, foremost among them being Patrick’s half-sister Sam, played by Emma Watson. The story of a year of high school reels out from there, with the expected highs and lows, break-ups and breakdowns, misunderstandings and reconciliations, but without it ever feeling rote or predictable.
Charlie, much like Cameron Crowe’s William Miller in “Almost Famous,” is an outside observer into a bizarre, alien world he doesn’t understand, slowly but surely becoming a participant as well. But far from being destructive, the life Charlie is entering into is a social one, as opposed to the depressed introverted one he had led before.
Looking objectively at “Wallflower,” there’s nothing here that I hadn’t seen before, so fully does it feel like a continuation of themes from the aforementioned filmmakers. But that’s not a criticism, as writer/director Stephen Chbosky manages the affair expertly. I was completely drawn in by this film, from the dialogue, to the music, to the excellent performances.
Logan Lerman was probably the biggest surprise for me, considering he had previously dipped his toe into the big budget fantasy genre with “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief,” a huge flop, as it turns out. He was also the kid in “3:10 to Yuma,” and D’Artignan in “The Three Musketeers,” and I would have guessed his career was heading in the direction of dull leading men like Chris O’Donnell. But Lerman is really good in this movie, very low key, but when the volume needs to go up, he’s got it covered.
Ezra Miller, as Patrick, was someone I’d never heard of, but was very impressed with. By far the most animated performance in the movie, Miller manages to keep it from turning into caricature. His previous claim to fame was the dark and disturbing school-shooter story, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” in the title role. I intentionally skipped that film, figuring there’s enough horrific violence in the news that I don’t need to watch a movie about it, too. Needless to say, Patrick, though weighty, is a much lighter role than that.
The biggest star in the film was also my favorite character, which is not surprising considering boys all over the world have had a crush on her for years. Emma Watson, better known as Hermione Granger, turns in her first major post-“Harry Potter” performance and proves that she’s more than just a one-trick pony. Her Sam, completely convincing as an American, is nothing like Hermione, and yet still manages to be the most approachable element in the story.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” was a very pleasant surprise, and one I’d heartily recommend seeking out. I had heard of it last year, but dismissed it as one of a dozen pseudo-indies that have perfunctory theatrical release before being released straight-to-video. Instead, “Wallflower” is a beautiful, emotional, at times intensely so, coming of age tale that picks up the torch for a genre that had long since fizzled out.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is rated PG-13 for language, drug and alcohol use among teens, and brief violence.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.