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The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

| October 16, 2012 | 0 Comments

Few films really know anything about teenagers.  These days we get vampires, mad slashers, and toilet humor, but we rarely ever get characters with hearts, minds, feelings and fears.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a rare and glorious joy, a movie that knows the fear and confusion of the years between childhood and adulthood, a time that is about growing up and discovering the mysteries of life, which are so much more interesting than superpowers or American pies.  Here is a movie so knowledgeable about the way in which young people talk and think that it may someday earn a place alongside the best teenage movies ever made, films like Rebel Without a Cause, American Graffiti, The Breakfast Club, Say Anything, and Juno.  It’s that good.

Like all of those great films, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not about a plot, but about the flow of lives being lived.  The story takes place within characters that are so well-defined that we find the story in their actions, not in a screenwriter’s manipulation.  The story takes place in the late-90s but the screenplay is so generous that almost any generation could recognize elements of their own personal history.

Based on the popular epistolary young adult novel by Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote and directed the movie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower centers on a young high school kid named Charlie (Logan Lerman) who is a meek, unassuming tenant of this world, a kid so shy and unremarkable that you could probably spend four years attending the same school and never notice him.  That, at least, is the way his fellow students see him.  We are privy to his life at home, with his mom and dad and a sister who is dating a loser.  Charlie’s heart is damaged because of a tragedy long ago.  His aunt died in an accident on his birthday.  Years have gone by but Charlie still nurses fresh wounds.  His act of self-therapy is to write in a private journal to someone he calls “My friend.”

We meet him as he is entering high school, a place where he is both mocked and ignored.  It isn’t long before – much to his amazement – he makes some friends.  One is a flamboyant gay kid named Patrick (Ezra Miller) who has a joke or a line for each and every occasion.  He’s the ever-present M.C. of his immediate surroundings.  For a while, Patrick’s overabundant personality seems one-note until late in the film when he begins to confide in Charlie some things about his own dark past that break his jolly facade.  Miller is a good actor whose exuberant performance is a complete turnaround from the quiet, sullen killer that he played last year in We Need to Talk about Kevin.

The other is Patrick’s half-sister Sam, played in a brilliant performance by Emma Watson whose presence still contains echoes of Hermione Granger.  Once, Sam was the school slut who got the attention of the boys by making herself an outlet of lust.  Casting off that skin, she lives a cleaner life but now has to live with feelings of regret.  She’s not the typical Movie Girlfriend who has all the easy answers contained in a tender smile.  She stirs the poetry in Charlie’s soul, but she is afraid to move toward love.  Sam is a particular human being, not a cliché, the rare kind of teenager who seems to be waiting for something.  She doesn’t live in the moment but is always looking forward.  She seems to be a victim of time itself, trapped in a body and an age that won’t let her press forward fast enough.  You can see the need in her eyes, a need to be somewhere else.  That’s probably why she is working so hard to get away from her past and into a good college.  Watson’s performance is a revelation.  Her eyes and her body language speak volumes.  Sam is a fully realized soul. It is a great performance. Watson deserves an Oscar nomination.

The movie is not, however, completely somber and serious.  It is also clever and funny, especially in a scene in which Charlie is pushed into a role at The Rocky Horror Picture show that puts him into the kind of contact with Sam’s budding breasts of which he probably have few objections.  Within his new circle of friends he finds himself attending an alarming number of high school parties, one of which has him sampling the host’s fresh batch of brownies – several in fact – with predictable results.  Charlie is nudged into experiences that few parents would agree with, but that Charlie will certainly never forget, no matter how hard he tries.  The unique circle of friends also includes a sweet but cloying girl who will briefly become Charlie’s first girlfriend.  She is Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) who has little interest in Charlie as a person, but more of an interest in just having a boyfriend.  She quickly gets on his nerves and their relationship comes to a devastating conclusion that we don’t expect.

The movie itself, in fact has a conclusion that you don’t expect either. It has a brilliant life-goes-on ending that leaves you wondering where the characters are going to go next. This is one of those movies that reveals itself as it goes along instead of making everything clear at the beginning and then following it through to an inevitable conclusion. This screenplay is a breath of fresh air.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is unpredictable because it depends on the actions of the characters, both in the serious and the comic moments.  They are written and acted with such specific detail that we can feel the even flow of their lives.  There is drama, joy, heartbreaks, mistakes, misunderstandings, romance, laughter and revelations.  It is wonderful to finally encounter a screenplay that lets the characters be human beings.  It feels the joy and tragedy of the awkward passage of the teenage years.  This is a film so smart about life that you find yourself nodding with recognition.  It is one of the best films of the year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2012) View IMDB Filed in: Drama